A shocking statistic recently made its way around the anti-war blogosphere. The number of contractors employed by America in Afghanistan and Iraq had increased by 30% to 250,000. Initial reports, like this one by Jeremy Scahill, make it sound like these 250,000 contractors are armed mercenaries, like BlackWater or Triple Canopy. They are not. According to the official CENTCOM report, the majority of contractors are non-military, foreign contractors.
Which begs the question, where do I stand on non-combat military contractors? In past posts, I’ve condemned mercenaries -- euphemistically, private security forces.
In theory, non-combat military contracting works. It allows the military to spend more time, money and resources on actually waging a counter-insurgency. (In reality, military contracting is a cesspool of corruption, waste, and fraud.) But, the key sin of non-combat military contracting is that it separates our forces from the population and inhibits a true counter-insurgency campaign.
Mao said it best, “A guerrilla is like a fish in the sea” and the sea is the support of the population. Nurture that support and your insurgency will thrive. Instead of a fish in the sea, the US military is a 19th century scuba diver with a logistical hose connecting back to the states, deprived of the opportunity to swim like fish in the support of the people.
Very little of the support the U.S. receives in Iraq comes from Iraq itself. Cargo containers and shipping companies bring literally thousands of tons of food, gasoline and hard supplies to Iraq every month. Every military dollar spent goes directly into contracts with American companies who supply our soldiers overseas. These companies hire their own workers and import them into Iraq from either America but mostly from third world countries like India. These contract workers provide services on American FOBs, act as construction workers on bases, or transport goods across Iraq or Afghanistan. (Frequently, these convoys hire their own armed contractors, namely mercenaries.)
Only a tiny percentage of the money allocated to fight our overseas wars enters the Iraqi and Afghan economies. We avoid directly supporting ourselves off the local economies. Determining the true number verges on impossible. Programs do exist to buy goods off the Iraqi or Afghan economies -- for example, using Field Ordering Officer funds to buy locally. But, these are peanuts compared to the economies of scale offered to military contracting firms such as Kellogg, Brown and Roote (KBR) and the reality that FOBs and COPs import all their food, water and gasoline.
An example of the absurdity of military contracting: KBR imports workers into an economy with 18-30% percent unemployment (at times spiking to fifty percent). Many of the studies of unemployment can't even access the areas of the greatest fighting and so the extremely high numbers in those regions cannot be accurately estimated. Why then, do U.S. contractors need to import thousands of workers into a country literally dying for work?
The main reason is operational security (spying). We import workers to drive trucks in Iraq paying them as high as $80,000 a year to ensure this security. Realistically, any Iraqi who earned $100,000 a year would never support the insurgency; he would need that job much more. His paycheck, as opposed to an imported American or foreign national, would go directly back into the local economy. And, his family and friends would have another reason not to attack convoys. Driving a truck is a simple task that we should have handed over to Iraqis several years ago.
In the initial invasion, the chaos of the war prevented us from surviving off the local economies. But the goal should have been to eventually support ourselves from it. The metrics of how many locals we employ and how much we survive off the economy are critical factors to judge our success.
Criticizing private security contractors is easy. They are mercenaries and every Iraqi civilian they kill is a tragedy. It is also easy to criticize the waste and fraud rampant in military contracting. Those criticisms ignore the deeper flaw of military contracting: they prevent us from winning, and helping the Iraqi people.