WASHINGTON: Private defence contractors in Afghanistan outnumber US troops by 3 to 1, says a report prepared for the US Congress this week. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), which prepared the report, notes that during recent US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors frequently averaged 50 per cent or more of the total Department of Defence (DOD) — both military and non-military — presence there.

The report — “Department of Defence Contractor and Troop Levels in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2007-2016” — shows how the United States now prefers to use these private workers for fighting its wars overseas.

DOD defines a defence contractor as “any individual, firm, corporation, partnership, or other legal non-federal entity that enters into a contract directly with the DOD to furnish services, supplies, or construction.”

The workers, although paid better than regular troops, are not entitled to other benefits, such as pensions, insurance and health facilities, and thus cost less. Since many of them are foreign nationals, their casualties do not have the same political impact in the United States as the body bags of US soldiers do.

Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistani citizens in Lahore in January 2011 and was released after paying blood money, was also a private contractor for the CIA.

Yet, the US Defence Department has spent more than $220 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2007 and 2016, the period covered in the CRS report.

The data shows that the non-military defence workers have continuously outnumbered US troops in Afghanistan since mid-2011.

Although since 2011, the United States has steadily decreased its presence in Afghanistan, withdrawing both troops and private contractors, the ratio between the two groups continues to widen. This is in line with the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the US military role in Afghanistan.

In 2012, the US had more than 117,000 private contractors in Afghanistan, the highest ever. And the significance of their role in the Afghan war becomes even more about when their presence is compared with those of the US military, around 88,000.

Almost one fourth — 23pc — of these contractors were employed as supplemental security personnel, and more than 70pc were foreign nationals receiving money from American companies and agencies.

As of March 2016, there were approximately 28,600 private contractors in Afghanistan, compared to 8,730 US troops. Thus the contract personnel represented approximately 77pc of the total Department of Defence presence in the country. Of the 28,600 DOD contractor personnel, approximately 870, or about three per cent, were private security contractors.

The CRS report shows that the majority of DOD contractors in Afghanistan today are providing logistics and maintenance services, to both American and Afghan troops. About 1,600 are working as translators, 1,700 as construction workers, and 2,200 as base support professionals.

The US media, while commenting on the CRS report, noted that US lawmakers in recent years have questioned how much oversight and scrutiny those contractors receive. The media also referred to concerns from watchdog groups about waste and fraud connected to war-zone contracts. Earlier this year, the US Senate attached new contracting oversight rules and reforms to its draft of the annual defence authorization bill, but those provisions don’t specifically single out Afghanistan contractors as an area of concern, a US media report noted.

The CRS also reports that earlier this summer, roughly 2,500 defence contractors were employed in Iraq to assist with the fight against Islamic State group militants in the region, along with about 4,000 US troops.

DOD ceased publicly reporting numbers of DOD contractor personnel working in Iraq in December 2013, following the conclusion of the US combat mission, and the subsequent drawdown of DOD contractor personnel levels in Iraq.

In late 2014, in response in part to developing operations in the region, DOD reinitiated reporting broad estimates of DOD contractor personnel deployed in Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). As the number of DOD contractor personnel in Iraq increased over the first six months of 2015, DOD resumed reporting exact numbers and primary mission categories of contractor personnel in Iraq in June 2015.

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2016

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