The New Unknown Soldiers of Afghanistan and Iraq

Did you know that private contractors in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troops three to one?

LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 03:  An American supervisor from the DynCorp security contractor watches Afghan forces cut opium poppies on April 3, 2006 near Lashkar Gah in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Afghan forces are feverishly working to eradicate the poppy fields before the harvest begins in the next month. The Taliban reaps huge profits from protecting the opium trade, according to Afghan officials. Afghanistan produces up to 85 percent of the world's opium and Helmand province almost half of that.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 03: An American supervisor from the DynCorp security contractor watches Afghan forces cut opium poppies on April 3, 2006 near Lashkar Gah in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Afghan forces are feverishly working to eradicate the poppy fields before the harvest begins in the next month. The Taliban reaps huge profits from protecting the opium trade, according to Afghan officials. Afghanistan produces up to 85 percent of the world's opium and Helmand province almost half of that. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

This past Monday, as on every Memorial Day, American political and military leaders paid tribute to the sacrifice of service members who gave their lives for their country. The day of remembrance is not only to honor the past dead, but also to recognize the tens of thousands of service members still deployed in combat zones today, regardless of whether politicians label them as “wars” or whether these operations are in the forefront of Americans’ minds. On Memorial Day itself, the Pentagon released a somber statement: “Sgt. 1st Class Pablo A. Ruiz, 37, of Melbourne, Florida, died May 24, in Bagram, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident.”

President Barack Obama, speaking at Arlington National Cemetery, used standard language of reflection declaring, “We honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American servicemembers — men and women — who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.” This is factually accurate.

However, it overlooks the important sacrifices made by non-service members on behalf of military missions. Since 9/11, a total of 1,592 private contractors (approximately 32 percent of whom were Americans) working on Department of Defense contracts were also killed in Afghanistan. Last year, private contractors accounted for 64 percent of all U.S. deaths in Afghanistan (56 service members and 101 contractors died). But we cannot know exactly where last year’s deceased are from, because shockingly the U.S. Department of Labor “does not routinely track the nationality of workers injured or killed under any of the laws administered by the program.”

This common practice of omitting the contractors’ role in U.S. military operations is troubling for several reasons. It overlooks their service and sacrifice, it disperses the burden of war onto poorly paid or protected locals or third-country nationals, and it gives a false impression of a much smaller U.S. military footprint and national commitment. Whenever the White House and Pentagon announce how many troops will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they never mention how many contractors will be deployed alongside them. When journalists and analysts request information, officials and spokespersons seem to never have it on hand, and it’s difficult to later obtain accurate or updated estimates.

It is long overdue that civilian and military leaders who authorize and command U.S. military operations openly acknowledge the critical role played by contractors. Private contractors have long played an essential role in U.S. overseas military operations, and the percentage of contractors relative to deployed U.S. troops has increased significantly since the end of the Cold War. The chart below from a 2014 Defense Science Board report demonstrates this.

Indeed, since 9/11, private contractors have been deployed at roughly the same — or even higher — rates as U.S. troops in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is hard to detail, because the U.S. military has never adequately tracked contractor personnel deployed in support of overseas operations, according to various Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports. (To give one highly disturbing anecdote demonstrating this, while in September 2011 the GAO found that the military could not reliably determine the number of contractor personnel that had been killed or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, over the same time period, the Pentagon had accurately been tracking the number of combat dogs killed in both countries.)

Nevertheless, relying upon the semi-detailed data available starting in 2008, the below graph shows how — since Obama’s first year in office — there have always been more contractors than U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, though neither the Pentagon nor the White House ever recognizes them.

This relative disregard for contractors is especially puzzling given that their support for recent military missions spans almost all phases of operations: shaping the environment, deterrence, support to stabilization operations, and civil governance. Their tasks include training, intelligence, transportation, translation, and force protection. But “contractors” is a dirty word in some military and policy circles, one that many Americans may conflate with the notorious firm formerly known as Blackwater, which was responsible for the massacre of 17 Iraqis in September 2007. However, even at the height of the surge, Blackwater employees comprised only 1 or 2 percent of all contractors in Iraq.

Every four months, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Program Support) releases quarterly contractor census reports for CENTCOM’s area of operations: Iraq, Afghanistan, and 16 other countries. The January 2014 report declared hopefully, “This will be the final U.S. CENTCOM report on Iraq contractor numbers.” Yet, in January 2015, the contractors figure re-emerged in recognition of the U.S. military’s deployment against the Islamic State in Operation Inherent Resolve. That January report estimated 5,000 contractors, which climbed to 6,300 in the latest report released last week; by comparison, there are fewer than half as many (3,000) U.S. troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, there are three times as many (30,820) contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops (10,000), 12,033 of whom are Americans. It is worth recognizing that these estimates do not include the contractors supporting the CIA, State Department, USAID, or other government agencies.

The extent of contracted support for America’s wars can be unearthed in the Pentagon’s daily “contracts” press releases. The most important recent U.S. policy statement for America’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan did not come from the White House, but rather was found in two paragraphs published late on New Year’s Eve, in which the Pentagon announced $100 million in contracts for DynCorp International, LLC, to “advise, train, and mentor” the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. Similarly revealing contracts include $12.8 million for Six3 Intelligence Solutions Inc., $36 million for IDS International Government Services, LLC, and two — released on the same day — for $6.9 and $6.8 million awarded to Battlespace Flight Services, LLC, for work “performed at Jalalabad, Afghanistan” and work “performed at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada” (i.e. the command and control of drones). These receive zero public scrutiny but are the visible indicators of what is predominantly and increasingly a contractor-run war.

Of course, contractors make tremendous contributions to the military outside of combat zones, including directly for Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. According to a January 2015 GAO report, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) “estimated that there were about 3,287 contractor full-time equivalents throughout the organization, which represents about 55 percent of OSD’s total workforce.” If you visit any base or post within the United States or abroad, it is likely that contractors are running the family assistance centers, sexual assault prevention programs, physical therapy rehabilitation clinics, and schools for service members’ children.

Contractors also play a significant role in other purportedly critical — and highly controversial — national security missions. For example, the 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program had a remarkable finding that tended to be overlooked in public debates about the program’s efficacy or morality. The report found that in March 2006, 73 percent of all positions within the CIA’s rendition and detention group were held by contractors, and by 2008 that percentage had risen to 85 percent.

After the report’s release, CIA Director John Brennan passionately highlighted, “the many sacrifices made by CIA officers and their families,” including those directly involved in the rendition program. Unsurprisingly, he never once mentioned the contributions of the contractors, even though they accounted for eight out of every ten individuals involved. While contractors were involved in proposing, establishing, operating, and evaluating the program, they are now an afterthought, neither recognized for, nor held to account for, any potentially criminal activities.

We do not blame service members for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of civilian officials who send them to war, and we appropriately pay tribute to their sacrifices when they are injured or killed. Yet, we do not extend any recognition whatsoever to contractors, without whom nowadays those service members could not have been deployed in the first place. There are no welcome home ceremonies, first pitches thrown at baseball games, or public commemoration. These contractors (temporarily) earn more money than service members and generally live in the bigger and safer bases where they face fewer risks to their livelihoods. However, contractors operating in Iraq or Afghanistan are never totally safe, and they too suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression — at rates at least equal to those of soldiers.

The reason Obama and politicians on Capitol Hill never mention the number of contractors deployed alongside service members to war zones today, or recognize the vital role that they play, is that they simply do not want U.S. citizens to know about them. If the American people were actually aware, then perhaps they would better comprehend the full extent of the military involvement in the ongoing wars. This is disrespectful to the contractor community and misleading because it intentionally undersells the scope of America’s military commitment. The next time the White House or Pentagon announces troop levels for Iraq and Afghanistan, they should include the telling data of how many contractors will go along with them, how many will be Americans, and what roles they will play to support the war effort. And then perhaps one day their sacrifice will be properly recognized on Memorial Day or another national day of remembrance.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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