Silent surge in contractor 'armies'
A key support for US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians have little oversight and, back home, little help.
There are two coalition armies in Iraq: the official one, which fights the war, and the private one, which supports it.Skip to next paragraph
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This latter group of civilians drives dangerous truck convoys, cooks soldiers' meals, and guards facilities and important officials. They rival in size the US military force there, and thousands have become casualties of the conflict. If this experience is any indication, they may change the makeup of US military forces in future wars.
Having civilians working in war zones is as old as war itself. But starting with US military action in the Balkans and Colombia in the mid-1990s and accelerating rapidly in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number and activity of contractors has greatly increased. Coming from dozens of countries, hired by hundreds of companies, contractors have seen their numbers rise faster than the Pentagon's ability to track them.
Now, the challenges of this privatization strategy are becoming clear.
Everything from who controls their activities to who cares for them when wounded remains unresolved, say experts in and out of the military. This has led to protests from families in the United States as well as concerns in military ranks about how contractors fit into the chain of command.
"This is a very murky legal space, and simply put we haven't dealt with the fundamental issues," says Peter Singer, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "What is their specific role, what is their specific status, and what is the system of accountability? We've sort of dodged these questions."
As the inevitable drawdown of US military forces in Iraq occurs, the importance of civilian workers there is likely to grow.
"In my view, the role of contractors is just going to continue to escalate, probably at an ever-increasing rate," says Deborah Avant, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, whose research has focused on civil-military relations.
For example, the new US Embassy now being completed in Baghdad – 21 buildings on 104 acres, an area six times larger than the United Nations complex in New York – is likely to be a permanent fixture needing hundreds if not thousands of civilian contractors to maintain it and provide services.
In Iraq, up to 180,000 contractors
Estimates of the number of private security personnel and other civilian contractors in Iraq today range from 126,000 to 180,000 – nearly as many, if not more than, the number of Americans in uniform there. Most are not Americans. They come from Fiji, Brazil, Scotland, Croatia, Hungary, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, and other countries.
"A very large part of the total force is not in uniform," Scott Horton, who teaches the law of armed conflict at Columbia University School of Law, said in congressional testimony last month. In World War II and the Korean War, contractors amounted to 3 to 5 percent of the total force deployed. Through the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, the percentage grew to roughly 10 percent, he notes. "But in the current conflict, the number appears to be climbing steadily closer to parity" with military personnel. "This represents an extremely radical transformation in the force configuration," he says.