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Civilian Contractors in Afghanistan

Civilian Contractors in Afghanistan

Private security contractors in Afghanistan (Foreign Policy Magazine)

The New York Times reported Sunday that in 2011, for the first time, deaths among civilian contractors working for American companies in Afghanistan outnumbered the deaths of U.S. military personnel in that country. The figure highlights the extent to which modern U.S. military has come to rely on the private sector in carrying out its missions. In September 2009, before the recent surge, contractors made up 62 percent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, many believe that the civilian number is understated because, unlike the military, the contractors are under no obligation to disclose their casualties to the public.

So what are civilian contractors even doing in Afghanistan? Contract personnel perform a wide variety of services that were once performed by military personnel but which technically fall outside the category of war fighting even as they bring some of the contractors into harm’s way. For example, unarmed civilians manage and staff military cafeterias, transport supplies, act as interpreters, interrogate detainees, and train Afghan army recruits. In addition, armed civilians function as body guards for State Department and Pentagon personnel and as security guards at U.S. facilities. Even when they work for U.S. companies, they are not necessarily Americans. According to the Times, of the 113,491 employees of defense contractors (compared to 90,000 troops) in Afghanistan in January 2012, 22 percent were American citizens, 47 percent were Afghans, and 31 percent came from other countries.

Contractors have been around for a long time, but reliance on them began to grow rapidly after the end of the Cold War, when the Department of Defense reduced its budget, in part, by cutting support and logistic personnel. The onset of the Afghan and Iraq wars led to a rapid and massive expansion of their use. This appeared especially advantageous at the time because the contractors were able to recruit people quickly and it was assumed that the mobilization could be easily reversed by simply canceling the contracts after the wars were over. Since Pentagon planners expected to be out of Iraq, for instance, within about nine months, the short time period of the contract would compensate for the higher expense of using civilian contractors. That, of course, did not work out as expected. Having sloughed off these auxiliary functions, the United States military currently appears unable to go to war without the support of “expeditionary contracting.” Nevertheless, the U.S. government has not fully adapted itself to supervising the contractors. Over the course of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the number of people overseeing contracts actually declined as the number of contractors rose. At the same time, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting estimates, some $60 billion was lost to waste and fraud in the contracting system.

There are a number of unresolved issues surrounding the use of civilian contractors in war zones. Their status under both U.S. and international law—especially if they are armed—remains ambiguous. This pertains to their legal obligations, to their own rights under law, and to the question of whose jurisdiction they operate under. There are also questions of effectiveness, accountability, and social norms. Contractors have been touted for their ability to adapt to new situations and new rules more readily than large bureaucratic structures (although some of them must be on the verge of becoming large bureaucratic structures themselves). Some critics, on the other hand, ask whether the availability of contractors makes government less accountable to its own citizens. Will the U.S. government be more likely to intervene in foreign wars if it can rely on civilian contractors, many of whom may not even be Americans? To date, few American voters have shown much concern for the fate of contractors—or even much awareness of their existence—compared to their concern when the U.S. military is deployed abroad. Furthermore, the question arises as to whether we want companies—some of them employing low-paid foreign personnel whose training, standards, and norms may not reflect those expected of the U.S. military—acting in the name of the U.S. government. Finally, some simply object to the outsourcing of functions deemed “inherently governmental.” Indeed, the law requires that inherently governmental functions be performed by government personnel; unfortunately, the definition of those functions is disputed.

Want to read more? Try:

Deborah D. Avant and Renée de Nevers, “Military Contractors and the American Way of War,” Daedalus 140:3 (Summer 2011): 88–99.

Richard Fontaine and John Nagl, Contracting in Conflicts: The Path to Reform (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, June 7, 2010), available at

Moshe Schwartz, Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis, Report No. R40764 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 29, 2011).

Transforming Wartime Contracting: Controlling Costs, Reducing Risks (Arlington, VA: Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, August 2011), available at



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.