By Frances Nobes, MA – Research Assistant, Kings College, England.
Contractors have been a constant feature in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both behind the scenes and in headline news. Just mentioning the name Blackwater brings to mind Vin Diesel look-alikes with aviator sunglasses and M-4s. However, these are not the only players on the contracting stage, nor are they an accurate representation of most contractors.
The use of contractors alongside military forces has never been more prolific than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the Vietnam War, the United States employed contractors at a ratio of one contractor per 55 military personnel. In Iraq that statistic is 1:1, and in Afghanistan it is 1.43:1. According to congressional research service (CRS) reports, there are approximately 27,000 contract personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq providing private security alone, which represents 17% of the Department of Defense’s total contractor workforce of 160,000.
At the height of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, contractor numbers exceeded the military footprint on the ground. The variety of tasks which these contractors fulfill ranges from armed convoy escort, war-gaming, field training Iraqi and Afghan troops and maintaining sophisticated weapons systems, to truck driving, catering and sanitation services.
Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have been covered by the media, but it is often their scandals and incompetence that are reported. The tales of contractors killing innocent bystanders, terrorizing the local population and even the shooting of the Iraqi Vice-President’s bodyguard in a drunken brawl are well known. However, the number of contractors who have been killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has been widely ignored. Perhaps the most memorable report regarding the death of contractors is the image of four Blackwater contractors whose bodies, after being burnt and dismembered, were hanged from a bridge in Fallujah, in 2004. Since this shocking incident, little has been reported regarding the overall number of casualties suffered by contracting firms.
By 2005, private military companies (i.e. those contractors providing direct military assistance to armed forces) had suffered an estimated 175 deaths and 900 wounded in Iraq, which was more than any single U.S. Army division and more than all the other coalition forces combined at that time. It was calculated that in the first two quarters of 2010 alone, contractor deaths represented 53% of all fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, between January and September 2010, more contractors died than U.S. soldiers.
Yet despite these shocking statistics, these figures are barely mentioned in media reports discussing the human cost of war. CRS calculated that in Afghanistan, private security company employees are 2.75 times more likely to be killed in action than uniformed personnel. This statistic rises to 8 times more likely to be killed if one considers private security contractors who provide mobile security services to DOD in Afghanistan. This statistic is both startling and practically unknown beyond the academic and research community.
Perhaps even more stunning than the figures themselves is the lack of certainty which surrounds them. The number of contractors who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is largely underestimated. Many of these figures do not accurately reflect the number of people killed or injured, but only those which have resulted in insurance claims. Furthermore, these figures do not include subcontractors – i.e. local country nationals or third country nationals hired by contractors to conduct objectives within contracts. The U.S. Department of Defense has little to no transparency in this regard, and if these casualties were taken into account, the figures would be considerably higher than those stated here.
Unsurprisingly, private contractor firms are anxious not to disclose the number of employees who have been injured or killed on the job, and thus gathering reliable and accurate data is difficult at best. Furthermore, Peter Singer, author of the work Corporate Warriors, claims that the precise number of casualties is unavailable as “the Pentagon does not track nonmilitary casualties.”
As more members of the armed forces are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public awareness of their sacrifice increases. Soldiers are honored in death and praised for their bravery and selflessness, as they should be. Contractors, however, have no such ceremony attached to their demise.
All of this leads to one conclusion, contractor casualties are being ignored by the public and, more disturbingly, by the government. Which leaves us with one final, haunting question: at what point did it become acceptable for a country, which spreads the doctrine of democracy and freedom, to lose interest in who is dying for those rights?
Frances is a Research Assistant with the Center for Strategic Research at INSS, and also working as an intelligence analyst at the Sicuro Group. She is currently finishing her Masters in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. Her thesis is on the use of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also holds a Masters with Honors in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. She has previously worked for the Governor of Maryland, at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, and on the SAILS project.