Following a dramatic few weeks, the US military’s time in Afghanistan is planned to come to a close in the next 48 hours. It’s an emotional moment for all who spent time in Afghanistan over the last two decades — including the thousands of contractors from around the globe who worked hand in hand with the military. Mark Cancian, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired Marine colonel now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In this piece, he argues for a clear-eyed view of the role played by contractors.
In the popular imagination — and the eyes of some political commentators — there are few greater evils in the world than military contractors. The very phrase brings to mind high-profile human rights abuses and financial malfeasance. Rachael Maddow, the MSNBC commentator, criticized “[reliance] on a pop-up army . . . of greasy, lawless contractors.” Others have called contractors “mercenaries” or “a dangerous addiction” or simply “greedy.”
But negative incidents, while real and serious, are the exception. The truth is that military forces in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) could not have operated without the services that contractors performed. And contractors have performed: They supported the troops during the long years of war in Afghanistan and stayed on the job under fire right up to the final collapse. As the Middle East wars wind down, the accomplishments and sacrifices of these contractors deserve recognition.
Contractors matter because they have become a permanent element of the military force structure. They provide real advantages on the battlefield, including more flexible personnel systems. Servicemembers are expensive and hard to recruit, so contractors fill the gaps. Further, administrations often cap the number of military personnel on the ground but exclude contractors. This allows commanders to accomplish their mission with fewer troops.
As a result, operational or battlefield contractors came to greatly outnumber military personnel in the CENTCOM region (43,800 contractors to 15,000 military in October 2020). In Afghanistan, the ratio of contractors to military personnel increased from 1:1 in 2010-2011 to 3:1 at the end.
With the collapse in Afghanistan, people look for scapegoats. A soothing narrative is that greedy contractors profited from waste during the war and undermined the war effort. It puts the blame on a familiar villain and absolves everyone else of their (many) failings. But it’s not true. The contractors supported our troops, bled with our troops, and stayed to the end.
They did this without being celebrated with yellow ribbons and the heartwarming videos of homecoming that servicemembers enjoyed. They did it knowing that when they came home, they were out of a job. No generous VA benefits awaited. And many did not come home. Indeed, more contractors have died (8,000) than US service members (7,000) in post 9/11 operations.
They deserve better treatment than they have received.
A Realistic Look At Contractors
As the US spends its finals days in Afghanistan, it is worth looking back at the role military contractors played over the last two decades.
Let’s start with acknowledging the bad: Financial controls were weak during the first decade of the wars, and some contractors cheated the government. A key problem was that a single company, KBR, held the contract for logistics services (called the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program or LOGCAP). That had been fine for the limited operations of the 1990s, but the scale of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan overwhelmed the system. The fact that former Vice President Dick Cheney had been associated with KBR added a conspiratorial element.
There were, in addition, crimes by contractors. Most famous was a 2007 incident in Nisour Sq., Baghdad, where Blackwater guards shot 14 unarmed Iraqis. Again, these abuses were real, and deserve to be remembered. But the issue was addressed, most notably between 2008-2010, when several commissions examined the issue, and Congress held hearings on the role of contractors. The findings pushed first the Bush and then the Obama administration to institute wide-ranging reforms.
As a result, DoD expanded LOGCAP to include several companies the bid against each other for tasks. Contractors are now required to conform with either US or international standards for training, recruiting, and conduct, with coordination through professional organizations like the Professional Services Council and the International Peace Operations Association, among others. DoD reports contractor numbers, and contractors now have clearer judicial oversight, including application of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For its part, the Pentagon has increased the number of contracting officials and made them easier to deploy. The fact that few incidents have arisen recently indicates that the oversight and controls instituted in the last decade have been effective. (Then, where was the waste? In the Afghan government, both its military and reconstruction effort, but that’s another story.)
It’s important to remember that while armed contractors have captured the public imagination, the vast majority of contractors performed administrative and logistical tasks. In January, before the final drawdown began, US Central Command reported 22,900 contractors in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The largest group did logistics/maintenance tasks (8,100), followed by those doing base support (3,200). Security had 3,000, of whom 1,575 — just under 7 percent of all contractors — were armed private security, the group that has received the most scrutiny because they go outside the wire with weapons.
I met many American contractors who were veterans, desiring to serve their country again in a different capacity. They were as dedicated to the mission as any servicemember. (Full disclosure: the author did two tours in Iraq as a Marine.)
Some contractors were “third country nationals” ― not US citizens but not locals either. For instance, a group of Romanians serviced the port-a-potties on our base. Day in and day out, they suctioned up our **** without complaint. A group of Turks cut hair so Marines could meet the sergeant majors’ standards. Sri Lankans ran the dining facility. I once asked a member of this crew why he was there. He explained that he was in his 20s and unmarried. In traditional societies, like Sri Lanka, adult children did not go out and get an apartment. They stayed with mom and dad until they could afford a house. When he went home, he would have enough money to buy a house, get married, and settle down.
These contractors did their jobs. Troops got fed and housed, vehicles maintained, and supplies delivered. Even the highly critical Commission on Wartime Contracting acknowledged, “In general, contractors have performed well in support of defense, diplomatic, and development objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Right now, emotions are high around Afghanistan, and people want someone to blame for the horrific images we see every night. That’s a human reaction. But to blame contractors, many of whom spent years of their lives working to avoid just this kind of disaster, is neither fair nor just.
In Afghanistan, Contractors Were Unsung Heroes Of US Efforts – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Mark Cancian for breakingdefense.com