180,000 Private Contractors Flood Iraq
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 6:26 PM
WASHINGTON -- The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq larger than its uniformed fighting force and responsible for a such a broad swath of responsibilities the military might not be able to operate without its private-sector partners.
More than 180,000 Americans, Iraqis, and nationals from other countries work under a slew of federal contracts to provide security, gather intelligence, build roads, forge a financial system, and transport needed supplies in a country the size of California.
That figure contrasts with the 163,100 U.S. military personnel, according to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the organization responsible for military operations in the Middle East. The Pentagon puts the military figure at 169,000. There are another 12,400 coalition forces in Iraq.
But it has its dangers. Employees for Blackwater USA were involved in a weekend shooting that left 11 Iraqis dead.
The heavy reliance on contractors in a war zone is partly the result of a post-Cold War shrinking of the armed forces and the Bush administration's preference for contracting out government functions to the corporate world.
It's also due to the compressed nature of the war in Iraq. Combat operations are ongoing at the same time as the reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure and assorted economic development efforts, pushing the number of contractors to high levels.
While having contractors on and around the battlefield is not new, the situation in Iraq raises questions about whether U.S. troops have become so dependent on contract help they could not function properly in their absence.
"If the contractors turn tail and run, we've still got to be able to fight," said Steve Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University and a former military lawyer.
The presence of thousands of private sector security guards adds another component to the debate. Employees for Blackwater and other companies are engaging the enemy in combat, a sharp departure from previous conflicts.
"It's pretty clear that line has been crossed in Iraq," Schooner said. "And it's been crossed because we don't have enough horses left, and we have all kinds of problems in terms of coordination."
As the military leans on the private sector, there's a push to hold contract employees to the same legal standards as military personnel. That effort has generated renewed attention in the wake of a weekend shooting involving Blackwater guards that left 11 Iraqis dead.
A measure proposed by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., would require all government contractors to be covered by federal criminal codes, a shortcoming revealed by the conflict in Iraq. Presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., is promoting similar legislation in the Senate.