The Middle East’s Contractor Problem
January 8, 2013
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is spending the week in Washington D.C. He is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other senior administration officials, and the talks are expected to help set the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the bulk of American and NATO forces leave at the end of 2014. However, even when the American military pulls the majority of its troops out of Afghanistan, there will still be a huge American presence in the country.
According to the October 2012 quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes Afghanistan as well as 19 other countries stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, there are approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in the Middle East region. There were 113,376 in Afghanistan and 7,336 in Iraq. Of that total, 40,110 were U.S. citizens, 50,560 were local hires, and 46,231 were from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working.
Candidly, there are currently more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Middle East is overrun with U.S. government contractors, and not all of them work for the American Defense Department. For example, contractors working for the U.S. State Department are prolific. The CENTCOM report says that “of FY 2012, the USG contractor population in Iraq was approximately 13.5K. Roughly half of these contractors are employed under Department of State contracts.”
While people now understand that contractors perform a lot of missions once done by troops – cleaning toilets, performing security — they may not realize how the size of contractors working in the Middle East has grown, or just how dependent on them the United States government has become.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. government is signing five-year contracts, well beyond the 2014 deadline for all U.S. combat forces to get out of that country. While Karzai is in the U.S. this week to negotiate a timetable for American troop withdrawal, one must assume that his talks won’t have much of an impact on the contractor population within his country. The subject of contractors remains conspicuously absent from Mr. Karzai’s global pulpit, and contractors have remained a strong presence in Iraq since all U.S. troops were withdrawn from that country in December 2011.
With contractors remaining in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, what prospects will their presence have for Afghan peace? Many of the conflicts in Afghanistan are based on local grievances. Karzai has stated that he hopes that militants who were galvanized by local disagreements can be reformed while any factions that fight for a global jihadi movement can be omitted and frozen out of Afghanistan’s political structure.
American officials hope to use any reconciliation talks in Afghanistan as a way to neutralize Taliban regional control. For example, any talks with the Taliban or a Taliban aligned group would be designed to dismantle some parts of the Taliban while excluding the more hostile factions. American strategists are hoping that if the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups become politically impotent, it will lead to a change in their behavior.