Afghanistan Contractors Outnumber Troops
Despite Surge in U.S. Deployments, More Civilians Are Posted in War Zone; Reliance Echoes the Controversy in Iraq
Even as U.S. troops surge to new highs in Afghanistan they are
outnumbered by military contractors working alongside them, according
to a Defense Department census due to be distributed to Congress --
illustrating how hard it is for the U.S. to wean itself from the large
numbers of war-zone contractors that proved controversial in Iraq.
The number of military contractors in Afghanistan rose to almost
74,000 by June 30, far outnumbering the roughly 58,000 U.S. soldiers on
the ground at that point. As the military force in Afghanistan grows
further, to a planned 68,000 by the end of the year, the Defense
Department expects the ranks of contractors to increase more.
ranks of military contractors in Afghanistan have been growing along
with the surge in troops. Above, contractor barracks at the Kandahar
military requires contractors for essential functions ranging from
supplying food and laundry services to guarding convoys and even
military bases -- functions that were once performed by military
personnel but have been outsourced so a slimmed-down military can focus
more on battle-related tasks.
The Obama administration has sought to reduce its reliance on
military contractors, worried that the Pentagon was ceding too much
power to outside companies, failing to rein in costs and not achieving
President Obama has repeatedly called defense contractors to task
since taking office. "In Iraq, too much money has been paid out for
services that were never performed, buildings that were never
completed, companies that skimmed off the top," he said during a March
In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to hire
30,000 civilian officials during to cut the percentage of contractors
in the Pentagon's own work force, and last month he told an audience of
soldiers that contractor use overseas needed better controls.
contractors' personnel for a time outnumbered U.S. troops in Iraq. The
large contractor force was accompanied by issues ranging from
questionable costs billed to the government to shooting of civilians by
armed security guards. A September 2007 shooting incident involving
Blackwater Worldwide guards working for the U.S. State Department, in
which 17 Iraqis were killed, forced the U.S. to aggressively rework
oversight of security firms.
Yet in Afghanistan as in Iraq, the Pentagon has found that the
military has shrunk so much since the Cold War ended that it isn't big
enough to sustain operations without using companies to directly
support military operations.
"Because of the surge, we're trying to get ahead of the troops,"
said Gary Motsek, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for
Program Support, who helps oversee the Pentagon's battlefield
contractor efforts. "So we're pushing contractors in place, doing it as
fast as we can, and trying to be responsible about it."
The heavy reliance on contractors in Afghanistan signals that a
situation that defense planners once considered temporary has become a
standard fixture of U.S. military operations.
"For a sustained fight like our current commitments, the U.S.
military can't go to war without contractors on the battlefield," said
Steven Arnold, a former Army general and retired executive at logistics
specialists Ecolog USA and KBR Inc., military contractors formerly
owned by Halliburton Co. He added, "For that matter, neither can NATO."
That poses a challenge for military planners who must keep tabs on
tens of thousands of people who are crucial to their operations yet are
civilians outside the chain of command.
In Congress, there's a particular concern about security contractors
who might upset diplomatic and military relationships. "We've had
incidents when force has been used, we believe, improperly against
citizens by contractors," said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat
who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This creates huge
problems, obviously, for those who have been injured or killed and
their families, but it also creates huge problems for us and our
policies in Afghanistan."
Iraq, as of June 30 there were 119,706 military contractors, down 10%
from three months earlier and smaller than the number of U.S. troops,
which stood at approximately 132,000. But as the Pentagon has been
drawing down contractors in Iraq, their ranks have been growing in
Afghanistan -- rising by 9% over that same three-month period to
73,968. More than two-thirds of those are local, which reflects the
desire to employ Afghans as part of the counterinsurgency there.
Many contractors in Afghanistan are likely to face combat-like
conditions, particularly those manning far-flung outposts, and are
exposed to possible militant attacks -- blurring the line between
soldier and support staff.
The reliance on contractors has prompted a shift in the defense
industry, sending more money to logistics and construction companies
that can perform everything from basic functions to project engineering.
A recent contract is worth up to $15 billion to two firms, DynCorp
International Inc. and Fluor Corp., to build and support U.S. military
bases throughout Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, government auditors have repeatedly uncovered military
mismanagement of contractors. The Wartime Contracting Commission
reported finding during an April trip that the military had accepted a
new headquarters building in Kabul hobbled by shoddy construction.
Officials in Iraq and Afghanistan were unable to give the commission
complete lists of work being contracted out at the bases they visited.
Coordination of security contractors, one of the most charged issues
in Iraq, is being beefed up for Afghanistan, said Mr. Motsek, the
Pentagon official. A new umbrella contract planned for later this year
is designed to make awarding work speedier and to help oversight and
As well, he said more Defense Department civilians are being sent to
oversee all types of contracts, and they will stay longer overseas than
their predecessors did in Iraq.
Video conferencing and other remote management tools had fallen
short as a substitute. The Army is also adding hundreds of civilian
contracting personnel, among the measures being put in place.