With President Obama addressing the nation tonight about a new escalation in Afghanistan, a perennially underexamined topic is once again receiving short shrift: the huge force of contractors, which as of June outnumbered the size of the U.S. troop presence itself, is likely to swell.The Administration seemingly hasn't addressed the issue, and the word "contractor" doesn't appear much in media coverage -- for example, in the Times and Post stories on the escalation today.
But David Berteau, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells TPM that as Obama increases troop levels to at least 100,000, "there will definitely be an increase in the number of contractors."
The contractors -- the majority of whom are Afghan nationals, according to a Congressional study -- do the work that makes the war possible, like serving food, driving trucks, constructing buildings, transporting fuel, and more. Between 7% and 16% of the total are Blackwater-style private security contractors, according to various estimates.
While contractors allow the U.S. to fight wars with fewer American troops -- which may be good or bad, depending on who you ask -- they also present serious transparency and security concerns. That includes goodwill-draining episodes like the May shooting of two Afghan civilians in Kabul by contractors working for Xe, formerly Blackwater. Experts are also concerned about an attack by enemies who might slip through security as a contractor at an American facility.
It's impossible to say how much taxpayer money is going to private contracts because various government entities either don't know, or don't agree on, just how many contractors are currently in Afghanistan.