The president’s "light footprint" approach to war has relied on thousands of Americans paid to fight — and die — in the shadows.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Last weekend, the New York Times published one of what will be many takes on President Barack Obama’s legacy as commander in chief. Retroactively shoehorning seven-plus years of varied military operations into one coherent “doctrine” is impossible, but dozens of articles will soon attempt to do so.
There is one significant aspect of this doctrine, however, that is rarely mentioned by the media and never by Obama: the unprecedented use of private contractors to support foreign military operations.
Obama has authorized the continuation or re-emergence of two of the most contractor-dependent wars (or “overseas contingency operations” in Pentagon-speak) in U.S. history. As noted previously, there are roughly three contractors (28,626) for every U.S. troops (9,800) in Afghanistan, far above the contractor per uniformed military personnel average of America’s previous wars. In Iraq today, 7,773 contractors support U.S. government operations — and 4,087 U.S. troops. These numbers do not include contractors supporting CIA or other intelligence community activities, either abroad or in the United States. On April 5, Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, declared during a Senate hearing that contractors made up 25 percent of his workforce.
Under Obama, more private military contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than all the U.S. troops deployed to those countries. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and March 31, 2016, 1,540 contractors were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (176 in Iraq and 1,364 in Afghanistan). During that period, 1,301 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq (289 in Iraq and 1,012 in Afghanistan). Last year was even more skewed toward contractors than the preceding six years; 58 contractors died in Afghanistan or Iraq, while less than half as many U.S. troops did (27) fighting in either country, including Syria.
The first thing you learn when studying the role contractors play in U.S. military operations is there’s no easy way to do so. The U.S. government offers no practical overview, especially for the decade after 9/11. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) began to release data on contractors only in the second half of 2007 — no other geographic combatant command provides such data for their area of operations. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found, “Although all [State Department, USAID, and DOD] are required to track the number of personnel killed or wounded while working on contracts and assistance instruments in Iraq or Afghanistan, DOD still does not have a system that reliably tracks killed and wounded contractor personnel.” Just last month, an especially exasperated John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, “We look forward to the day you can tell us how many contractors are employed by [the Department of Defense].”
Moreover, the role, scope, and size of military contractors are never mentioned when there is a new announcement of a U.S. troop deployment to Iraq or Syria. Journalists rarely ask Pentagon spokespersons or military commanders how many contractors will be deployed alongside the troops. On the rare occasions they do, the military representative never has any estimates available. In February 2015, when asked whether outside companies were involved in screening Syrian opposition fighters, the response of Rear Adm. John Kirby, then spokesman for the Department of Defense, neatly encapsulated this utter lack of transparency: “Whether there’s contractors involved, I just couldn’t say.”
Not only is it impossible to get reliable, cumulative numbers for contractors deployed or killed, but there are no available government estimates for how many of the deceased war-zone contractors were U.S. citizens. According to one estimate by the Professional Services Council, an industry trade group, only about 32 percent of contractor fatalities between 2001 and 2010 were citizens. The remaining 68 percent are non-Americans who are hired by U.S. or non-U.S. firms that have won a military contract.
When U.S. troops die in service of their country abroad, a detailed Pentagon news release with the service members’ deaths appears on the constantly updated “casualty status” website, which categorizes the operation they were supporting and whether they were killed in action or through non-hostile means.
When U.S. citizen — or non-citizen — contractors die supporting those troops, their employer is, in theory, required to report the incident to the Labor Department’s Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation (DLHWC) within 10 days. Alternatively, a family member can file a claim for insurance compensation. The DLHWC then creates a case, and the contractor death is included in the division’s Defense Base Act database, which is updated daily but released to the public only quarterly. In 2011, the DOL inspector general estimated that 68 percent of employers do not report injuries in a timely manner. What complicates matters is that sometimes the contracting activities are subcontracted to host-nation nationals, who fail to report deaths to the original contractor due to a lack of literacy or improper documentation. Thus, contractor fatality numbers are almost certainly undercounted.
There is also limited congressional oversight of contractors, except when a foreign employee accidentally kills a U.S. service member, and for egregious cases of waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer resources. In May 2008, there was a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, “Defense Base Act Insurance: Are Taxpayers Paying Too Much?” There was also a series of congressional hearings in 2011 after the multiyear Commission on Wartime Contracting found that at least $31 billion, and as much as $60 billion, had been lost as a result of contract waste and fraud. However, for roughly a decade, there has not been a single hearing focused on the overall responsibilities borne by contractors in U.S. military activities.
In the broader political world, contractors similarly receive zero attention. In the 28 presidential debates held thus far, there was just one mention of military contractors, and then only when Ohio Gov. John Kasich decried “big contractors that were charging thousands of dollars for hammers and screwdrivers and ripping us off.” There were no opinions offered on those individuals who are most likely to be killed when supporting military operations abroad.
During the next five months you will read a lot about the “Obama doctrine,” in particular the supposed “light” military footprint he endorses. However, you will not read about the far larger numbers of war-zone contractors, or the dangerous responsibilities they fulfill. Were it not for these contractors, Obama’s “light footprint” would suddenly be two or three times as large. When the government refuses to provide consistent information about contractors, and when the news media neglect to bring attention to their role and sacrifices, the human costs of fighting America’s wars seem less significant than they actually are.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images