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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The debate in the Senate is over the increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Will the total surge add up to something approaching 150,000 or with back up units even more than that? Well, whatever the number of troops ends up being, it will not represent the total U.S. presence in Iraq. Now we're not just talking about diplomats and intelligence agents. There's also a population of contractors, civilians employed by the U.S.

And senior news analyst Ted Koppel has been looking into the scope of their role. Welcome back, Ted.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: How many contractors do we think there are in Iraq and roughly what do they do?

KOPPEL: Well, there are at least 100,000 contractors, so if you consider that there are about 150,000 troops or will be about 150,000 troops, we're already talking about 250,000. They are not, I should hasten to point out, necessarily all Americans. I know the last time I was in Iraq, I was somewhat interested to discover that out at the airport, security was being handled by a group of Gurkhas.

SIEGEL: Of course, the Gurkhas are a famed unit of the British armed forces from Nepal. And there have always been civilian contractors.

KOPPEL: As long as I can remember.

SIEGEL: But these big numbers represent a shift in thinking about what service men and women in uniform do and what civilian contractors do.

KOPPEL: In the old days, by which people of your generation or mine usually mean Vietnam, we were talking about (unintelligible), building the airports in Vietnam, the air bases, doing construction work, building highways and indeed that kind of work is still being done by civilian contractors today.

But you also have people handling the kind of jobs that used to be handled by the army itself - the cooks, the messes are being run by contractors. The fuel trucks are being driven by contractors. And a significant amount of protection is being dealt with by armed contractors who work for private corporations which have their own aircraft, their own helicopters, their own weapons.

SIEGEL: So when we compare, say, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to the number of U.S. troops that there were way back when in Vietnam, a troops to troops comparison isn't really accurate. It should be troops to troops plus nowadays.

KOPPEL: That's exactly right, and to a certain degree, I think there is a numbers game that is being played here, that one of the reasons that we have contractors today, A, is because back then in the days of Vietnam we had the draft. Today we don't.

B, as we can see now with the president's surge of wanting to send more troops in, it becomes a highly sensitive political issue. One of the great advantages of sending private contractors into roles like that is nobody's counting. There is no lobby out there that says, whoa, wait a second. What are you doing? And the peace demonstrations to the degree that we have them have not yet really focused on that group of men and women who are out there.

SIEGEL: If an IED destroys a truck that's being driven by a contractor who in decades past would have been a serviceman, that contractor's death is not counted by the Pentagon as a U.S. military casualty.

KOPPEL: That's exactly right. And yet, I believe the latest number that I saw is about 775 contractors who have died, and that number has been going up roughly at the same ratio that the number of troops being killed has been going up over the last four years.

SIEGEL: Have you gotten any impression as to whether policy makers - or for that matter, senior military officers - regard this as an approach that's working? Do they seem to be satisfied with the relationship between uniformed services and contractors today?

KOPPEL: General David Petraeus, who as you know is taking over the senior military job has just been quoted as saying he regards these contractors as being absolutely an essential part of the overall mission. I've a number of interviews with people from Blackwater USA, which is one of the more reputable and larger private contracting firms. They put it very simply - one team, one fight.

SIEGEL: Ted Koppel, thanks a lot for talking with us.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel. You can sign up for his podcast at NPR.org.

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