RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to look now at how many people it really takes to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers we've been hearing recently involve actual troops, but not the people hired privately - cooks, drivers, security guards. During the war in Vietnam, those were largely military jobs. At its peak, the U.S. war effort there involved more than 500,000 personnel.
NPR's Tom Gjelten checked into the overall numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan and found that they are almost as high.
TOM GJELTEN: At last count, there were about 195,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then you have to add in all those people hired to help the U.S. military. Moshe Schwartz of the Congressional Research Service says contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, may now be providing perimeter security at a forward-operating base.
Mr. MOSHE SCHWARTZ (Congressional Research Service): They will be providing convoy security, where they will be protecting convoys that are moving throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, and personal security details, where they will be involved in protecting individuals that are moving from point to point.
GJELTEN: Construction, food service and transportation are among the other areas where contractors are used. The days of soldiers doing KP duty in the mess hall or working as truck drivers are almost gone.
With contractors, the total U.S. force doubles. If we include U.S. troops and contractors in neighboring countries assisting in the war effort, there are 522,000 personnel engaged by the U.S. military in the Iraq and Afghanistan region. That's getting close to the Vietnam total.
During the Vietnam War, there was just one outside contractor for every eight U.S. uniformed military. Nowadays it's one contractor, one service member. The 30,000 new U.S. troops headed for Afghanistan will likely be accompanied by another 25 to 50,000 contractors.
The big reason for the increased use of contractors is cost. By farming out non-combat duties, the U.S. military can concentrate on its core mission: war fighting. But there are drawbacks. In Iraq and Pakistan, for example, the U.S. image suffered when military contractors working for the firm previously known as Blackwater were accused of rogue behavior, ranging from murder to unauthorized commando raids. Again, Moshe Schwartz.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: It's not to say that contractors are necessarily doing a lot of those things that they are often accused of, but it means that the charge does seem to get some traction in some quarters. The perception sometimes becomes a very important issue.
GJELTEN: Schwartz says he's speaking for himself here, not for his employer, the Congressional Research Service.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has avoided some problems by hiring locally, employing Afghans in many positions. But this has raised new concerns about whether contracting is well-coordinated with military goals.
At a Senate hearing yesterday in Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill quizzed Pentagon representatives about reports that the U.S. military pays its Afghan contractors more than the Afghan government pays its policemen.
Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): If you're an Afghan and you can make more money cooking for American troops than you can make taking up a gun to fight the Taliban, I'm betting they're going to cook for the troops.
GJELTEN: Pentagon officials said they didn't know about pay scales. It was one of various contracting issues they said they'd have to check on.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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