WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. use of private security contractors has grown sharply in the past 15 years and despite well-documented controversies, such as the most recent Blackwater trial, the Pentagon and State Department show no signs of backing off.
There is no better example of a private contractor gone awry than Blackwater. The now defunct contracting company rose to prominence during the height of the Iraq war and crashed and burned not long after, largely thanks to a 2007 incident in Iraq where employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more. This week one former employee was sentenced to life in prison and three others received 30 years each for the mass shooting.
Yet the Department of Defense and State Department are showing no signs of curtailing the use of contractors. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters Tuesday that the agency has taken numerous steps to heighten accountability for contractors such as “moving quickly to improve investigative policies and strengthening procedures for use of force and less-than-lethal force by security contractors.” Beyond that, she would not answer more questions on the topic, and the State Department would not respond to requests from DecodeDC for comment on the use of contractors going forward.
It’s hard to determine the number of PSCs used by the U.S. military and State Department overseas. Available data isn’t always comprehensive, and the State Department will not disseminate numbers on the PSCs it currently uses.
In December 2008, 69 percent of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan were PSCs and roughly 15 percent of them were armed. Numbers released by the U.S. Central Command for the DOD in January 2015 showed that about 40,000 PSCs were in Afghanistan. To compare, there are about 10,000 U.S. troops also stationed there. That means contractors make up about 80 percent of the military presence.
About 4 percent of DOD contractors in Afghanistan currently hold security positions. The majority offer logistics and maintenance support.
In Iraq, where most contractors are controlled by the State Department, numbers are just as skewed. The contractor presence can be estimated at around 60 percent of the total military presence.
It’s common for the use of contractors to increase as military forces go down when wars are coming to their end. Often PSCs stay long after official troops are pulled out to offer security and other base support.
“If you are going to war, the idea is that the war is going to end at some time,” said Claude Berube, director of the history department at the United States Naval Academy. “Is it better to build up a military that is only going to be needed for a certain amount of time, or would it behoove you to look at private security forces that can be an addition to forces for a certain period of time?”
But critics believe PSCs provide the government with a veiled tool. Because their numbers aren’t combined with the official numbers of troops in a region, they are often seen as unofficial boots-on-the-ground. If say Obama sent more PSCs to Iraq, he wouldn’t be breaking his word after he promised no more military troops would be sent there.
With news that President Obama has granted the Iraq prime minister $200 million in humanitarian aid towards fighting Islamic State extremists, there’s a possibility that the help could come in the form of new PSC manpower for a slew of positions including personal security, officer training and static security missions.
“Iraq has been called the first contractor’s war,” Ann Hagedorn, author of “Invisible Soldiers,” a book about PSCs, told the New York Times. “With an increasing dependence on these companies worldwide, we could easily be going into another contingency operation that will be another contractor’s war.”