Blackwater. Triple Canopy. DynCorp. KBR. According to some, employees of these four security giants are mercenaries. While they generally prefer the term “civilian contractors,” they are modern corporate warriors. The civilian contractors, mostly ex-soldiers or former police officers, draw their paychecks from short-term contracts with the Pentagon or State Department and are motivated by just that – the paycheck. According to an adage of the business, a contractor is motivated by “the opportunity to kill the enemies of my country and to finally get that boat I’ve always wanted.” They are not soldiers because, quite frankly, soldiering doesn’t pay well enough.
The Pentagon has employed private military contractors since the end of the Cold War. Since then, they have fundamentally changed the way America fights her wars, as the privatization of security has expanded to a multibillion-dollar global industry. The United States had deployed 175,000 soldiers and 207,000 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan combined as of March 31, 2010. The ratio of contractors to soldiers in Iraq was 1:1 and even higher in Afghanistan. Annually, the United States spends $155 billion on contractor services.
Contractors are temporary workers in what politicians hope will be temporary conflicts. The average contractor in Iraq signs a three-month contract and makes $600 or more per day. When the three months are over, the contractor is done. The Pentagon has no further commitment to its former employee, at least until he signs another contract. By comparison, an enlisted soldier in the Army serves for at least eight years, while the government foots the bill for thousands of dollars of training, thousands of dollars of health care, insurance and if the soldier is married, thousands of dollars of benefits for his or her family. At a high cost to the government, a soldier cashes paychecks in pennies compared to the average civilian contractor.
And these soldiers aren’t necessarily boots on the ground, finger on the trigger warriors. For every infantryman, several support troops are required to keep him combat-effective. Someone has to do his laundry, cook his food, transport his ammunition and translate the intelligence that directs his operations. From an operational perspective, it’s only logical to hire out the menial tasks that America’s soldiers currently perform.
The tasks outlined above are usually contracted to companies like Kellogg Brown Root, the largest force provider in Iraq other than the U.S. military. As of now, their work remains relatively free of controversy.
On the other hand, companies like Blackwater Worldwide (recently renamed Xe Services), Triple Canopy and DynCorp come far closer to the traditional definition of a mercenary. Their contracts are more dangerous, ranging from transport jobs in Fallujah – one such mission led to the deaths and brutal mutilation of four Blackwater contractors – to providing security for regional government offices, which are routinely threatened by suicide bombs and other attacks. Contractors on these assignments often “carry more weapons, [and] ammunition . than an infantry fire team” according to the half-joking email chain. They are under orders to fire on any vehicle that comes too close to their convoys, and they don’t hesitate to do so.
This is where the controversy surrounding contractors stems from. When Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007, the company was blown apart. While the details behind the killings are still disputed, Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq was officially revoked the next day for what the U.S. and Iraqi governments claim was an unprovoked attack on civilians.
Blackwater is not the only company that has been scrutinized and condemned by the federal government. DynCorp, for example, has been accused of sex slavery and prostitution in Bosnia and wasting millions of dollars on unnecessary projects such as building a swimming pool on orders from the Iraqi police.
Despite these controversies, both humanitarian groups and the U.S. government are still using private military companies in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the military withdraws from Iraq, the State Department plans to double the number of contractors it employs for security to 7,000. Contractors will continue to have a critical role in Afghanistan as well, despite the protests of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.
Private military contractors aren’t going away anytime soon. Instead, their role is continuing to grow, because of their low-cost and efficiency. Contractors are hired guns, and they’re very good ones. As American commitments abroad continue to shift and change, so will contractors’ roles. One thing, however, is certain: Private military companies have solidified their role as an integral part of the American security and defense industries.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. Behind The Wire appears every other Tuesday.