Counting the Contractors in Iraq

From the Washington Post comes news that will, or should, dominate the discourse over Iraq for a few days: a CENTCOM census counted “about 100,000” contractors in Iraq. This is up from an estimated 87,000 a few months ago, but this be partially explained by better surveying.

In comparison, there are around 140,000 US troops, and of course very few Coalition troops, save 6,000 +/- UK troops, in Iraq now. Here’s the contractor breakdown WaPo gives:

  • DynCorp International: 1,500 (700 training police)
  • Blackwater USA: 1,000+ (most as security contractors)
  • KBR: 50,000 across Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, although there may be some doublecounting as they won’t give breakdowns.
  • MPRI (part of L-3 Communications, NYSE: LLL) , has about 500 employees
  • Titan, another L-3 division, has 6,500 linguists in the country.

There are four aspects to this story, two of which are briefly mentioned.

The first is this quote from William Nash of the CFR:

“It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the military commander to ensure contractor compliance. If you’re trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids, that’s not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren’t going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier.”

The impact of driving techniques was “addressed” months ago in Afghanistan. More importantly, while we consider the contractors to be less than agents of the US (they are contractors, not American military personnel), locals don’t, as Nash states, see a difference, regardless of nationality of the contractor.

The lack of a strategic vision in Iraq is emphasized by this report. Our frequently ad hoc assemblage of “gap” solutions has resulted in a force not just a few times larger than our nearest Coalition partner, but nearly twenty times.

Interviewing Robert Young Pelton, one here’s numbers upward of 140,000 contractors in Iraq: around 70,000 known plus one unknown for each known.

The second point is the next, and last, paragraph in the article:

The census gives military commanders insight into the contractors operating in their region and the type of work they are doing, [Lt. Col. Julie Wittkoff, chief of the contracting branch at Central Command]said. “It helps the combatant commanders have a better idea of . . . food and medical requirements they may need to provide to support the contractors,” she said.

This is a minor point, but points out the reader the 100,000 +/- contractors are far from an absolute number. There are support services provided by the military (at a cost to the military… i.e. the contractors are not self-contained), there are support personnel the contractors bring to the country that are not yet counted, and there little other “insight into the contractors operating” in the military’s operating areas.

There are multiple levels of control and accountability, not just criminal, that this article only hints at and I’m sure other Post and NYT authors will start to catch on to.

The third aspect of this story, completely absent, is who pays for the contractors. With most of the security contractors under subcontract, awareness and control become increasingly unclear. The impact contractors have on our mission ranges from the daily drives to the guys taken down in Fallujah in 2004 that, as Thomas Ricks points out, weren’t aware of changing conditions and tactics.

But who pays for the contractors? Department of State? Department of Defense? Department of the Interior? All of it from budgets controlled by the executive branch, but funded by Congress? The Custer Battles trial showed that some monies were effectively “hidden” through the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, to what affect?

One of the arguments in favor of contractors is the bang for the buck. How many bucks for what kind of bang is impossible to measure without transparency.

The fourth issue is the most important and completely ignored in the article: the complete absence of these numbers being represented in either General Pace’s or Jim Baker’s study groups. Besides the expected virtual acknowledgement that we can’t go to our allies for help, our paid friends in the country are ignored.

More importantly, we apparently have 100,000 additional forces (not all are shooters) supplementing our mission in Iraq, but coordination is poor and the fact we are just getting a handle on them indicates an incredible lack of strategic vision. But that’s no surprise. These contractors could be helping us, if it weren’t for reconstruction failures and their held to a larger strategic task beyond getting from Point A to B and protecting each of those points.

Last point to reiterate the control and accountability issue. American democracy relies, in part, on a democratic control of force. The Founding Fathers were intimately aware of the power of the military and gave us a Constitution that created a shared control of the armed forces between two masters, the legislative and the executive branches of government. Congress was empowered to “raise and support” the armed forces of the new nation and given the power “To declare War,” and the President was given the power to conduct the war. Further, of the 18 Congressional powers enumerated in the US Constitution 11 relate to security. (for more on this part, see Charlie Stevenson’s book) The contractors in Iraq are generally, if not completely, outside the control and oversight of Congress. This “private army” of the executive branch isn’t held to the same two-master standard as the military. Hence recent GAO and CRS reports on contractors.

There’s more to this issue than the numbers, although they indicate a problem more significant and severe than most are aware.