According to estimates at the end of last year, the 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan, announced by President Obama in November 2009, will be accompanied by a surge of up to 56,000 contractors.
Contractors carry out a variety of roles, from information technology tasks, to providing security, to conducting logistics operations to ensure the smooth functioning of military operations. Historically, contractors have played a central role in conflicts since medieval times. During the ‘Middle Ages,’ contract armies carried out wars on behalf of princes and kings. The German Landsknecht, mercenary units rented by governments, fought in most major battles during the Renaissance period.
The U.S. has relied on contractors to provide support to the military since the Revolutionary War. During the American Revolution, the Continental Army relied heavily on private citizens to provide supplies and intelligence while the British employed large numbers of German soldiers purchased from principalities in Germany.
During the Civil War, private citizens on both sides of the conflict supported the war effort by providing provisions, shelter and occasionally medical care to soldiers. Additionally, the Union contracted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to conduct intelligence collection activities. The occupation of Japan following World War II saw a massive increase in the use of contractors to rebuild the war torn nation. During the Vietnam War, contracts were awarded for a variety of construction projects throughout South Vietnam.
Government contracting has continued into the present day. On the modern battlefield, contractors can be seen working alongside U.S. troops, serving the national interest and often outnumbering U.S. troops in theater.
The government contracting community has received criticism from members of the press, the U.S. public and foreign nationals in recent years. Criticism was particularly high following a number of alleged incidents involving the North Carolina based company, Blackwater (now Xe Services).
Despite a small number of unfortunate incidents, contractors are more often incredibly efficient and effective. Additionally, the majority of contractors (around 95 percent) employed in overseas environments are not in combat roles, but instead provide numerous other essential support services. Dr. John Nagl and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in an article titled ‘The New Reality About U.S. Contractors,’ said “Not a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan has failed because of contractor non-performance. Most private contractors appear to make a positive contribution, and to be honest, patriotic, and dedicated to the mission at hand.”
By early January 2010, the cost to station U.S. troops in Afghanistan was approximately $65 billion, or $1 million per soldier, with the majority of the money being spent on transporting troops and equipment. U.S. troops carry out a variety of roles in Afghanistan but are predominately engaged in combat operations. The U.S. military employs contractors and local Afghanis to provide support to U.S. troops.
In January 2010, the United Nations released a scathing report on corruption in Afghanistan, citing that Afghanis paid approximately $2.5 billion, or one quarter of the GDP, in bribes in 2009, most of which went to local Afghan officials and members of insurgent groups.
On the converse, contractors employed by the U.S. government often act efficiently to provide support to U.S. and coalition forces. While some of these contractors hail from nations such as the United Kingdom and India, the majority of contractors in Afghanistan are U.S based.
Dr. James Jay Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation and author of Private Sector, Public Wars: Contractors in Combat- Iraq, Afghanistan and Future Conflicts, recently highlighted the efficiency that contractors bring to a conflict. “The private sector and the efficiency they bring is an asset,” he said. “The most successful nations will not be ones that don’t use contractors but will be the ones who use more contractors.”
Government contractors, like most private companies, are partially driven by a desire to produce the best product with the least amount of resources. This encourages government contractors to provide innovative and efficient solutions to meet the goals and deadlines contained in their contracts.
Hard work and professional demeanor only helps to further U.S. foreign policy goals by ‘winning hearts and minds’, a central tenant of counterinsurgency doctrine.
In recent conflicts, the U.S. has participated in operations akin to “nation building,” particularly with the present conflict in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, where the previous ‘central’ government was overthrown, the infrastructure of the country, including the civil services, must be rebuilt with local personnel trained by U.S. and coalition forces.
In order to ensure that Afghans are properly trained to carry out the large variety of civil service tasks, from combat to policing to accounting, the trainers must be experts in their field. While the U.S. military is widely considered one of the most professional and well trained in the world, it is fundamentally a combat oriented organization. The U.S. does spend vast amounts of money annually to ensure that its troops are well trained and equipped to handle a variety of situations when deployed and there are efforts to utilize the ‘civilian’ skill sets that many troops bring to the table.
Nevertheless, when recreating a national infrastructure from the ground up, the U.S. seeks to employ experts with a wealth of experience in their field to serve as trainers to Afghan personnel. The government contracting community provides a more experienced and skilled layer to augment U.S. government capabilities. The private sector has a history of attracting some of the best and brightest in the nation and is able to fill positions much quicker than government agencies.
“We bring to the table that ‘been there, done that’ philosophy,” said Wistar Kane, a contractor with Xe Services who will be partnered with an Afghan national in a government ministry.
When searching for individuals to fill positions, government contractors often hire individuals with years of experience in government service, which allows them to provide professionals that are familiar with the inner workings of the government, better enabling them to work well with their government counterparts in completing their contracts.
This ability to bring recognized experts to bear in U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan is essential to U.S. operations.
It goes without saying that the men and women of the U.S. military are patriotic. These individuals are willing to sacrifice their time, energy and even their lives to protect and serve our country. However, the U.S. military does not hold a monopoly on patriotism. U.S. based government contractors are equally patriotic and dedicated to preserving our nation. In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy said, “In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘hold office’; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.”
Government contractors are fulfilling their responsibility, providing valuable service in support of the United States. They believe that the mission and goals are worthy of their time and energy. One contractor, who asked to remain anonymous, said he took the position because “in a longer perspective, it’s in our national interest.”
Similar to U.S. troops, government contractor personnel put themselves on the line in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives. At the end of 2009, over 1,300 contractors had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to data extrapolated from a U.S. Department of Labor report, well over ten thousand contractors were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan by September 2009. T. Christian Miller, author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq, told Terry Gross of National Public Radio “These are guys who are over there, they’ve been hired to do a job, they’re supporting the soldiers.”
Contractors operating in combat theaters face the same risks as combat troops and deserve the same measure of respect and gratitude. Contractors will clearly remain an integral part of the battlefield in the 21st century. Members of Congress, scholars and policy makers are beginning to look at providing clearer guidance for the use of contractors in combat zones in the future.
Despite being often maligned, government contractors continue to provide essential services to support U.S. foreign policy goals abroad. These key assets of contractors ensure that the missions undertaken by the U.S. government have a chance of success. Instead of demonizing the government contracting community, we should recognize the valuable contributions that contractors make to advancing U.S. national interests and honor their sacrifices.