Contractors: Who Needs Them?

By Robert Young Pelton

The September 2008 photo shows three well-known faces—Chuck Hagel, Joe Biden and John Kerry—standing in front of a Blackhawk helicopter on a snowy mountaintop.

As former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry assumes his role as Secretary of State, vice president-elect Joe Biden and current Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, have an interesting story.

After the incident Kerry issued a statement. He inferred that he had been “forced down” and that three key members of the Obama government, himself included, were rescued by U.S. military.

“After several hours, the senators were evacuated by American troops and returned overland to Bagram Air Base, and left for their next scheduled stop in Ankara, Turkey,” the Kerry statement said. “Senator Kerry thanks the American troops, who were terrific as always and who continue to do an incredible job in Afghanistan.”

The problem was there was no U.S. military to rescue Kerry, Hagel and Biden.

On February 21, 2008, the picture indeed depicted the lawmakers in a treacherous war zone. Shortly after the incident, Kerry the then Massachusetts Democrat told reporters, “It went pretty blind, pretty fast and we were around some pretty dangerous ridges. So the pilot exercised his judgment that we were better off putting down there, and we agreed,” he said. The senator joked, “We were going to send Biden out to fight the Taliban with snowballs, but we didn’t have to do it.”

Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, later told a different, exaggerated story to the National Guard Association. As if boasting of braving the danger and challenging his political rivals, he told the NGA, “my helicopter was forced down.” He repeated the phrase a second time.

With the rapidly worsening weather, there was no way to evacuate the senators to safety by air. The U.S. military didn’t have the necessary people and vehicles nearby to rescue the senators via ground transport before the storm hit.

So the U.S. Embassy asked the men of Blackwater USA to go in by land and evacuate them to Bagram. They did the job, and the senators knew who came to their rescue mountainside when the military could not.

Two months after Blackwater plucked Kerry and company off an Afghan mountainside, Kerry made public his desire to see Blackwater lose its State Department contract. “The era of Blackwater must finally end,” Kerry said in December 2008. He went on to say, “even the Bush Administration acknowledges that outsourcing overseas security to private firms like Blackwater is a mistake.”

The story would be long forgotten if these three men were not instrumental in charting the future of the U.S. military and, more importantly, the role of contractors in Afghanistan.

Although most of the news has centered around exactly how much the military strength would be reduced, very little centers around the number or role of contractors in Afghanistan.

With the disaster in Benghazi showing what happens when an administration ignores security requests and existing contracted security  in other high risk spots, Kerry’s and Hagel’s views on security contractors become increasingly relevant. Hagel, whose vote for Defense Secretary has been postponed, responded to a committee qualifications questionnaire in a typically non-committal way. But he likely won’t push for anything drastically contrary to current policy.

The same can be said for Kerry, who has vowed for increased security at embassies and for our overseas personnel. You can bet that a lot of that security will come from private firms. While the drawdown of troops in 2014 occupies media headlines, the fact is that the US presence may not dwindle all that much. And that will, no doubt, include many ranks of private security contractors.

A Project Of Government Oversight (POGO) report released in January reveals that although troops may be packing up, security and other contractors at the Embassy in Kabul are being overworked to fill the gap. Sequestration or automatic cuts may create deep cuts in the U.S. military but the contracts for training and support of the Afghan army will rely on contractors, many of them guarded by other contractors. Special Operations units rely heavily on contractors for technical, logistical, intelligence and other support.

As troops “retrograde,” contractors will surge was a prediction by industry expert Pratap Chaterjee in June of 2011. He estimated that the current ratio of one contractor to one soldier will increase to 1.4 per soldier. “ If the Obama administration draws down to 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by September 2012, they will need 88,400 contractors at the very least, but potentially as many as 95,880.” He was only off by around 15,000…on the low side.

Under President Obama, private security contractors have surged in Afghanistan. The Democrats ran on a platform critical of private contractors and came into office with around 4,000 contractors on the ground in Afghanistan. By 2011 there were 19,000. If all types of contractors are taken into account there are now 110,400 contractors on the ground in Afghanistan.  Pratap Chaterjee’s ratio prediction was right on the money with 1.4 contractors to one U.S. soldier. Around 33% of those contractors are U.S. citizens, 37% are Afghans and the balance come from other countries.

William Beaver of Danger Zone Jobs points to a recent report detailing a 2013 estimate from the DoD in the area covered by CENTCOM, which covers a large swath of real estate and includes Afghanistan.

“In 1st quarter FY 2013, USCENTCOM reported approximately 136,000 contractor personnel working for the DoD in the USCENTCOM AOR. This total reflects a slight decrease from the previous quarter. The number of contractors outside of Afghanistan and Iraq make up about 12.7% of the total contractor population in the USCENTCOM Area of Operation.”

The distribution of contractors in Afghanistan by contracting activity are:

Base Support:

13,261

12%

Commo Support

3,300

3%

Construction:

10,064

9%

Logistics/Maintenance

23,688

21%

Security

19,197

17%

Training

3,711

4%

Translator/Interpreter

5,796

5%

Transportation

6,178

6%

Other*

25,209

23%

Total:

110,404

*Includes Defense Logistics Agency, Army Materiel Command, Air Force External and Systems Support contracts, Special Operations Command and INSCOM.

Despite, the negative attitude towards private contractors, their role under a Democratic administration has expanded dramatically and will continue to.  Once again it will be contractors that come to the rescue of now Secretary of State Kerry, Vice President Biden and potentially Chuck Hagel.

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