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Talking Points Memo

As Obama Sends More Troops, Giant Shadow Army Of Contractors Set To Grow In Afghanistan

Justin Elliott

Contractors watch for threats on plane departing from Forward Operating Base Sharana in Eastern Afghanistan in May of 2009. (Newscom

With President Obama addressing the nation tonight about a new
escalation in Afghanistan, a perennially underexamined topic is once
again receiving short shrift: the huge force of contractors, which as
of June outnumbered the size of the U.S. troop presence itself, is
likely to swell.

The Administration seemingly hasn't addressed the issue, and the
word "contractor" doesn't appear much in media coverage -- for example,
in the Times and Post stories on the escalation today.

But David Berteau, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, tells TPM that as Obama increases troop levels
to at least 100,000, "there will definitely be an increase in the
number of contractors."

The contractors -- the majority of whom are Afghan nationals, according to a Congressional study
-- do the work that makes the war possible, like serving food, driving
trucks, constructing buildings, transporting fuel, and more. Between 7%
and 16% of the total are Blackwater-style private security contractors,
according to various estimates.

While contractors allow the U.S. to fight wars with fewer American
troops -- which may be good or bad, depending on who you ask -- they
also present serious transparency and security concerns. That includes
goodwill-draining episodes like the May shooting
of two Afghan civilians in Kabul by contractors working for Xe,
formerly Blackwater. Experts are also concerned about an attack by
enemies who might slip through security as a contractor at an American

It's impossible to say how much taxpayer money is going to private
contracts because various government entities either don't know, or
don't agree on, just how many contractors are currently in Afghanistan.

That fact "permits and invites waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer
money and undermines the achievement of US mission objectives," Michael
Thibault, co-chair of the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting,
complained at a hearing last month. At that hearing, military witnesses couldn't come up with a precise count of contractors, prompting former GOP congressman Chris Shays to remark, "I kind of want to scream."

After being bounced around to several DOD offices in the United
States and Afghanistan that professed ignorance about the number of
contractors, a U.S. Central Command spokesman told TPM today the issue
would take some time to look into, and he would get back to us.


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The best count we and the experts we spoke with could find is a September study
by the Congressional Research Service, with numbers through June
provided by the military. It notes that last December, contractors made
up 69% of the DOD workforce, "the highest recorded percentage ... in
any conflict in the history of the United States."

The number of contractors in Afghanistan as of June was 73,968,
compared with 55,107 troops. Of the total contractors, about 10,000 are
Americans, 51,000 are locals, and roughly 12,000 are third-country
nationals. Take a look at this graph from the study:

It's not just discussions of troop levels -- which typically ignore
contractors -- that obfuscate the size of the American commitment in
Afghanistan. According to a powerful piece in the Los Angeles Times, almost 1,600 civilian workers have died in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

"Since the end of the Cold War the US government has become
extremely comfortable with contracting out certain military functions
to the private sector, and therefore doesn't consider these contractors
to be part of the American commitment," says Peter Juul, a researcher
at the Center for American Progress. "They're off the books and don't
really count, even though you have to pay for them."

The White House said
today that each additional 10,000 troops will cost roughly $10 billion.
But does that number include any increase in the contractor force? It's
not clear.

A comprehensive study of the issue by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, created by Congress in 2008, is due in the summer of 2011.

Finally, it's worth noting that Hamid Karzai recently promised to kick out all foreign private security firms and transfer their duties to Afghans within two years. But analysts told Mother Jones they don't think the promise is worth much.

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