Contractors 'R U.S.

The U.S. military has become so reliant on private contractors that it literally can't go to war without them -- and as many as 56,000 more will be hired as Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan.
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Welcome to the wonderful, and frequently wacky, world of military and foreign policy outsourcing and privatization.

Currently, over 30,000 more U.S. troops are deploying to Afghanistan per President Obama's recent announcement to surge more U.S. forces there. But the number of U.S. forces now going there, combined with the U.S. troops already in Afghanistan, total around 100,000--a figure dwarfed by other the American force there, i.e., private contractors.

In mid-December 2009 it was reported that as many as 56,000 new contractors will be hired as Obama escalates the war. This is in addition to the estimated 104,000 contractors already there. This 160,000 total is more than the combined U.S. and NATO forces that make up the International Security Assistance Force currently operating in Afghanistan.

As of September 30, 2009, contractors comprised more than 60% of the Defense Department's workforce in Afghanistan. In December 2008, contractors comprised 69% of the Defense Department's workforce, the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel in US history.

From June 2009 to September 2009, there was a 40% increase in Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan. During the same period, the number of armed private security contractors working for the Defense Department in Afghanistan doubled, increasing from approximately 5,000 to more than 10,000.

Of course, the above numbers exclude contractors working for the U.S. State Department and USAID. As of March 31, 2009 (the most recent date for which data is available) there were 3,600 State Department contractors and 14,000 USAID contractors working in Afghanistan. Due to problems with the completeness and accuracy of contractor personnel data, the total number is likely to be even higher.

The U.S. military is so reliant upon contractors now that it literally can't go to war without them. The planned surge of military and civilian personnel is expected to be accompanied by a surge in contracts and contractor personnel. Contractors in Afghanistan provide a wide area of services, including dining facilities, logistical support, translation, security, reconstruction and development projects, and contract management. In 2008, the Defense Department, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) combined had more than 16,000 active contracts in Afghanistan.

Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the continuing debate over whether and how to utilize private military and security contractors (PMC) generates is full of sound and fury, and mostly signifying nothing.

One can argue for and against such contractors but what nobody wants to discuss is that the U.S. government's huge and growing reliance on private contractors constitutes an attempt to circumvent or evade public skepticism about the United States' self-appointed role as global policeman. The U.S. government has assumed the role of guarantor of global stability at a time when the American public is unwilling to provide the resources necessary to support this strategy. Private contractors fill the gap between geopolitical goals and public means.

The reason we have such reliance on private contractors is simple enough. The end of the Cold War gave states a reason to downsize their military forces, freeing up millions of former military personnel from a wide variety of countries, many of them Western. At the same time, the end of the Cold War lifted the lid on many long-simmering conflicts held in check by the superpowers. Because markets, like nature, abhor a vacuum, PMCs emerged to fill the void when conflicts emerged or wore on with no one from the West or the United Nations riding to the rescue.

Even though the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is a historical memory the United States still reserves the right to militarily intervene everywhere. This, however, despite the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld championed, is a highly people-powered endeavor.

And most people have decided that their children, much like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War, have "better things to do."

Still, most people will continue to stick their heads in the sand on this central issue so let's look at another, underappreciated, aspect of the issue.

Far too many people, including those who should know better, try to stigmatize contractors as mercenaries. They are clearly not. If people still believe that words have meaning then the meaning of mercenaries is spelled out quite clearly in Article 47, Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Protocols. And people from Blackwater, DynCorp, ArmorGroup, et cetera don't fit.

Before going any further let's acknowledge that that vast majority of contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are decent, honorable men and women, doing their best to do difficult jobs in dangerous and hazardous environments.

But that is not to say that all the reasons for using contractors are credible. More on that in my next post.

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