By Richard Fontaine
Best Defense department of 21st century warfare
The New York Times reports a series of eye-opening figures about the risk to U.S. contractors in Afghanistan. For the first time, more private contractors died working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan last year than did American soldiers -- and the total killed and wounded is almost certainly understated. With 113,000 employees of defense contractors working in Afghanistan, there are more private contractors in theater than American military personnel.
America is still struggling to get a handle on how the nation should employ private actors in its battles and foreign reconstruction efforts. CNAS' John Nagl and I wrestled with these issues in a 2010 report that advocated a path of reform. Since then, the Pentagon and the rest of the U.S. government have made important strides toward improving the process by which contractors are employed. But the work is far from over.
The challenges posed by contractors on the battlefield are unlikely to go away even as the United States draws down in Afghanistan. While we are unlikely to see another large-scale reconstruction effort akin to Afghanistan and Iraq anytime soon, given Pentagon, State Department and USAID operating procedures, America will for the foreseeable future be unable to engage in conflicts or reconstruction and stabilization operations of any significant size without private contractors. The ratio of contractors to government personnel in certain operations may actually increase as the Army and Marine Corps cut their numbers. And in Iraq, of course, while all American troops have departed, thousands of U.S.-employed contractors remain - sometimes in harms' way.
All of this raises key practical concerns. Last fall's report by the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, which examined contracting abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan offered a series of sensible recommendations for reform, mostly focused on preventing waste and fraud (which, the Commission estimated, produced a loss of up to an astonishing $60 billion).
In addition to those reforms, others are needed. Training courses for U.S. soldiers preparing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, have rarely addressed the role of contractors. They should. Operational plans frequently lack a detailed annex that articulates specific contractor requirements for a given mission. They need one. The legal status of contractors under overlapping layers of U.S., foreign domestic, and international law remains murky in places. The Congress and the executive branch should together work to clarify this status.
Beyond the practical need to further reform the system, however, are no less important questions about the proper role of the private sector in American conflicts. While contractors have been a part of U.S. operations since the Revolutionary War, the scale and scope of their activities is unprecedented in American history. In 2010, for example, some 260,000 contractors served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than the entire troop presence in those countries. As the scholar Alison Stanger has chronicled, the increased use of contractors is not limited to the military but is taking place across the "three Ds" of defense, diplomacy and development.
This use of private contractors reduces the political costs associated with U.S. deployments and global commitments. American politicians and policymakers routinely make reference to the number of troops that have deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan but almost never to the hundreds of thousands contractors that served alongside them. American troops, diplomats and other government workers killed in combat zones are listed in casualty totals and featured in "faces of the fallen" tributes; American contractors killed in the same zones barely register - to say nothing of locals or third-party nationals working for the United States.
Contracting out key jobs enables American commanders and diplomats to field a far larger effective force than they could by relying on government employees alone. Given this state of affairs, the United States has a keen interest in properly marshalling the activities of contractors in America's military and reconstruction operations.
But that is not its only interest. America should also begin to consider the broader implications of relying on contractors for future wars, both its own and those of other countries. It should determine with greater precision when to contract out a given activity and when to require that only the government perform it. And it should debate what all of this means for the all-volunteer force, for American democracy, and for those tens of thousands of contractors who -- as the New York Times illustrated poignantly -- remain in danger on a daily basis.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.