Private Contractors in Conflict Zones: The Good, the Bad, and the Strategic Impact

Article excerpt

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In Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of contractors reached a level unprecedented in U.S. military operations. As of March 31, 2010, the United States deployed 175,000 troops and 207,000 contractors in the war zones. Contractors represented 50 percent of the Department of Defense (DOD) workforce in Iraq and 59 percent in Afghanistan. (1) These numbers include both armed and unarmed contractors. Thus, for the purposes of this article, the term contractor includes both armed and unarmed personnel unless otherwise specified. The presence of contractors on the battlefield is obviously not a new phenomenon but has dramatically increased from the ratio of 1 contractor to 55 military personnel in Vietnam to 1:1 in Iraq (2) and 1:43.1 in Afghanistan. (3)

This increase is the logical outcome of a series of decisions going back decades. Force structure reductions ranging from the post-Vietnam decisions that moved most Army logistics support elements to the Army Reserve and Guard (4) to the post-Cold War reduction that cut the Army from 18 to 10 divisions with corresponding cuts in support forces greatly reduced the Services' ability to support long-term operations. Next, a series of decisions in the 1990s led to the employment of contractors in the Balkans for tasks from traditional camp-building to the new concept of "force development" that saw MPRI training the Croatian army. Finally, the decision to invade Iraq with minimum forces left the United States with too few troops in-theater to deal with the disorder that resulted from the removal of Saddam. Thus, it is understandable that the immediate, unanticipated need for large numbers of logistics and security personnel, the shortage of such troops on Active duty, and the precedent for using contractors in the Balkans caused the Pentagon to turn to contractors to fill the immediate operational needs. However, the subsequent failure to conduct a careful analysis of the wisdom of using contractors is less understandable. The executive branch has conducted numerous investigations into fraud, waste, and corruption in the contracting process. Congress has held hearings and established the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the U.S. Government has not systematically explored the essential question: Does using contractors in a conflict zone make strategic sense?

This article explores that question. It examines the good, the bad, and the strategic impact of using contractors in conflict zones. It concludes with policy recommendations for the future employment of contractors and outlines additional actions needed to understand and cope with the rapidly expanding use of armed contractors worldwide.

The Good

Contractors provide a number of advantages over military personnel or civil servants--speed of deployment, continuity, reduction of troop requirements, reduction of military casualties, economic inputs to local economies, and, in some cases, executing tasks the military and civilian workforce simply cannot. This section examines each of these advantages in turn.

Speed of deployment--the ability to quickly mobilize and deploy large numbers of personnel--is particularly important when a plan fails to anticipate problems. Since the Pentagon had not planned to keep large numbers of troops in Afghanistan or Iraq for any period of time, it had not planned for the required logistics support. The Pentagon also failed to anticipate the requirement for large numbers of security personnel to protect all U.S. activities (including political and reconstruction activities) once the Afghan and Iraqi governments were toppled.

By tapping into databases, running job fairs in the United States, and contracting for labor from Third World companies, contractors were able to quickly recruit, process, and ship personnel to run base camps, drive trucks, and perform the hundreds of housekeeping chores required to maintain both combat forces and civil administrators spread across Iraq and Afghanistan. …

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