The Pentagon's civilian contractor work force in Afghanistan outnumbers the deployment of uniformed U.S. soldiers, with contractors accounting for 57 percent of Defense Department personnel there, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service.
The reliance on a civilian work force rather than American military personnel represents "the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States," concludes the report, which was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.
The report is based on the Pentagon's surveys of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall, as of March 31, 2009, the Defense Department employed more than 240,000 contractors in the two war zones, compared with approximately 282,000 uniformed soldiers.
The CIA has been a recent target of criticism for its heavy use of contractors. Firms like Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, have come under harsh public scrutiny for their security work in Iraq for the State Department.
But the bulk of civilian contractors are engaged in noncontroversial, noncombat-related tasks, such as construction and maintenance. Defense officials point out that using contractors for menial tasks frees up much-needed soldiers for combat operations, and, when managed properly, it can be cheaper.
"You're looking at an over-reliance on contractors because they don't have the troops to do these tasks on their own," says Michael Cohen, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation who has studied the issue. "It's just not reality to think you'll go back to the days when the majority of these jobs were held by soldiers. Whether we like it or not, this is a simple reality of war-fighting in the 21st century."
In Iraq, some 58 percent of contractors were working on support functions, including dining facilities and laundry, in March 2009. The second largest category was construction.
Security — the area that has received the most criticism — accounts for a lower percentage overall, but it has been growing.
The latest numbers from U.S. Central Command show that there were 13,232 armed security contractors in Iraq in June 2009, or about 11 percent of the total contractor work force. The number of armed guards jumped 19 percent between March and June, a rise that defense officials say is driven by increased security needs as U.S. force levels are declining.
The makeup of the contractor work force in Iraq is surprisingly different from that in Afghanistan. In Iraq, U.S. citizens account for more than one-quarter of all contractors, while the figure is only 14 percent in Afghanistan.
The CRS report notes that hiring local contractors is considered "an important element in counterinsurgency strategy," because it helps inject money into the local economy and increases contact between U.S. personnel and locals.
But Cohen worries that the heavy use of contractors masks the full scale of the U.S. involvement in the two war zones. At the height of the U.S. military's deployment in Iraq, some 170,000 U.S. troops were on the ground, but the total number of Defense Department personnel easily topped 300,000 when the contractors were figured in.
"It's different going to war with 180,000 than going to war with 300,000," Cohen says. "It allows politicians to play down the level of U.S. involvement, and I think that's something that can be really dangerous."
There have also been a number of scandals related to security contractors, including incidents where Blackwater guards in Iraq allegedly fired on civilians, but many of these were related to State Department contracts, not Pentagon contracts.
Indeed, the latest allegations concern security guards for the U.S. embassy in Kabul who engaged in drunken hazing activities amid significant breakdowns in the chain of command and morale, according to a private watchdog group. The Project on Government Oversight obtained, among other evidence, photographs of the lewd behavior.
The complaints center on a company called ArmorGroup North America, which has a State Department contract to guard the embassy. About 150 of the company's guards are Americans or other English speakers, while the remaining 300 are Gurkhas from northern India and Nepal, according to POGO.
In Afghanistan, local Afghans account for three-quarters of the Pentagon's contractors, while Iraqis make up a mere 27 percent in their country, a figure that has been declining over the past year.
Part of this reflects the haphazard and rushed approach in Iraq to hiring contractors as the need for them ballooned in the messy post-invasion chaos.
"For the first four years of the war, the Pentagon's oversight of contractors was really poor," Cohen says. "Now, there is a much better level of oversight. What the Pentagon still lacks is a comprehensive view of how they use contractors and a more clear sense of how officers on the ground work with contractors and oversee them."