Modern War: The Decade of the Mercenary

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY W.G. DUNLOP Iraqi soldiers receive training by foreign contractors in the Besmaya military base in southern Baghdad on April 24, 2012. The Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I), a group of 157 military personnel under US embassy authority, supported by some 600 civilian contractors, is working with the Iraqi military on everything from training on new equipment to military education. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages)

Contrary to popular belief, Mercenaries are the “Silent Majority” in Obama’s Military, and the president’s “light footprint” approach to war has relied on thousands of Americans paid to fight — and die — in the shadows.

Last weekend, the New York Times published one of what will be many takes on President Barack Obama’s legacy as commander in chief. Retroactively shoehorning seven-plus years of varied military operations into one coherent “doctrine” is impossible, but dozens of articles will soon attempt to do so.

There is one significant aspect of this doctrine, however, that is rarely mentioned by the media and never by Obama: the unprecedented use of private contractors to support foreign military operations.

Obama has authorized the continuation or re-emergence of two of the most contractor-dependent wars (or “overseas contingency operations” in Pentagon-speak) in U.S. history. As noted previously, there are roughly three contractors (28,626) for every U.S. troop (9,800) in Afghanistan, far above the contractor per uniformed military personnel average of America’s previous wars. In Iraq today, 7,773 contractors support U.S. government operations — and 4,087 U.S. troops. These numbers do not include contractors supporting CIA or other intelligence community activities, either abroad or in the United States. On April 5, Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, declared during a Senate hearing that contractors made up 25 percent of his workforce.

Under Obama, more private military contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than all the U.S. troops deployed to those countries. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and March 31, 2016, 1,540 contractors were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (176 in Iraq and 1,364 in Afghanistan). During that period, 1,301 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq (289 in Iraq and 1,012 in Afghanistan). Last year was even more skewed toward contractors than the preceding six years; 58 contractorsdied in Afghanistan or Iraq, while less than half as many U.S. troops did (27) fighting in either country, includingSyria.

The first thing you learn when studying the role contractors play in U.S. military operations is there’s no easy way to do so. The U.S. government offers no practical overview, especially for the decade after 9/11. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) began to release data on contractors only in the second half of 2007 — no other geographic combatant command provides such data for their area of operations. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found, “Although all [State Department, USAID, and DOD] are required to track the number of personnel killed or wounded while working on contracts and assistance instruments in Iraq or Afghanistan, DOD still does not have a system that reliably tracks killed and wounded contractor personnel.” Just last month, an especially exasperated John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, “We look forward to the day you can tell us how many contractors are employed by [the Department of Defense].”

Read the Remainder at Foreign Policy

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