Since its Revolutionary days, the American military has been no stranger to the use of paid help – from carpenters to ditch diggers – to wage war. By 1965 in Vietnam, the practice of relying on private defense companies became widespread enough within the Pentagon that Business Week dubbed it a "war by contract."
In Afghanistan, the use of private contractors has reached record levels. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report found that they now make up 60 percent of the Defense Department's workforce. With fewer US soldiers than contractors throughout the war-torn country, the Pentagon is more dependent on private defense contractors than ever in its history.
Contractors bring in fuel and food for American soldiers in Afghanistan along what many consider to be one of the most complex and treacherous supply chains in the history of modern warfare. They keep installations running, guard key NATO bases, and train Afghan police.
Yet there is a growing chorus of warnings from both within the US military and on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon's dependence on contractors is undermining its own war efforts. A Senate Armed Services Committee investigation this month further concluded that the widespread use of contractors puts at risk the US exit strategy of training Afghan security forces – Afghan soldiers and police routinely leave the service to take more lucrative jobs with private defense companies.
The Senate investigation also turned up mounting evidence to suggest that largely unmonitored Pentagon contracts with private security companies – half of which are Afghan-owned – may also be lining the pockets of Taliban insurgents who agree not to attack convoys in exchange for cash.
"If you want to know the driving force of corruption in Afghanistan, it's not Afghan culture," warns Anthony Cordesman, a security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's American contracting."
The Pentagon is beginning to grapple with the complexity of fixing what many now recognize as a deeply broken system. Though reforms are difficult to implement and come with their own risks, a failure to act now, say some US officials, may risk the entire US mission in Afghanistan.
Some contracting problems have long been apparent to US officials. One of them is that some Defense Department contract money goes to warlords who run classic pay-for-protection rackets with their own private militias. What is also clear is that the attrition rate for legitimate Afghan security forces remains as high as 130 percent in some units.
"We get them trained up and certified, and the contractors hire them for more money," says T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Iraq and is now a fellow with the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.
The delay in addressing a lack of oversight surrounding contractors who may also have ties to the Taliban has had consequences, Mr. Cordesman argues. The recent Senate Armed Services Committee report, for example, reflects concerns "that are seven or eight years old." Efforts to address them have been "extraordinarily slow" to take hold, he adds. "Time and again you have created risk to American soldiers. You have almost certainly caused Americans to be killed or wounded – and you have essentially strengthened the enemy."
Without greater controls on contracting dollars, "you have created a threat that is almost as great as the insurgency," he says. "And that is a government that has so many forces corrupting it that it can't win the support of the people."
The Pentagon is increasingly aware of this point and has begun to take a particularly hard look at its reliance on private security firms, which account for roughly 16 percent of all contractors, totaling more than 26,000 personnel operating in Afghanistan.
"We have absolutely no quality control of the people we're putting in these jobs," says Mr. Hammes, who recently completed a study on the strategic impact of contractors in war zones. "And we're authorizing them to use deadly force in the name of the United States."
Citing precisely this point, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that he wants many private security companies – including Blackwater – out of the country by year's end. But the enforcement of this decree remains unclear.
US officials, who continue to negotiate the matter behind the scenes, publicly say that while they agree with the spirit of the decree, the time line is unrealistic. Critics charge that it is an effort by Mr. Karzai tap into the profits of these lucrative companies by consolidating government control over them – a charge Karzai denies.
For his part, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has recently issued a set of guidelines in an effort to improve the contracting process, recommending that the US military use its intelligence resources to investigate Afghan companies vying for Defense Department contracts.
US military officials have also increased pay for Afghan security force trainees in an effort to compete with private security companies. Now they are wrestling with how to more effectively distribute troops to improve security along the highways. "You wouldn't spend the money to hire security along some of these roads if you didn't have to," says one senior US military official in Kabul who is not authorized to speak to the press. "That's one of the things we're looking at."
The Pentagon has also begun relaxing "double dipping" prohibitions – in which Pentagon officials earning pensions after 20 years of service must give the pensions up in order to return to work – in hopes of deploying more contracting specialists to Afghanistan.
"At a time when there's a real deficit of these guys in the theater, it could induce them to come to work," says Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "It's eminently sensible."
More difficult will be making tough choices about which paid contractors pose long-term threats to the US mission. "I mean, paying the Taliban is a really bad idea, but if you stop paying them tomorrow, you put convoys at greater risk," says Mr. Fontaine.
One widespread suggestion is to have senior US military officials making the decisions about which private security companies should be hired to do the jobs, rather than junior troops in charge of contracting. "It's one thing to say we shouldn't pay these guys protection money," Fontaine adds, "but the implications are something only someone at a high level can determine."
"Let's not be childish about this – it's impossible to eliminate corruption," adds Cordesman. "But it is possible to put more pressure on warlords to be more effective and less corrupt." This might involve "shifting money to rivals to put pressure on them," he says. "Money is a tremendous tool as well as a corrupting force if you use it properly."
Ultimately cutting off warlords may actually be feasible, given time. For now, that might mean having more patience with less-connected contractors. "You may not get the same speed of reaction you do if you contract with the enemy," says Cordesman, "but the lasting impact is to build up exactly the capabilities we want at the local level."