In 2003, I was on a trip to Iraq and had arranged an appointment in the Green Zone with a member of the then-Iraqi Governing Council. Security was tight. I was with my Iraqi translator, a middle-aged man who had once been a teacher. When we arrived at the council, after a long walk, I showed my ID to two young uniformed United States soldiers. They told me to wait, went inside and out came a man wearing civilian clothes, one of those fishing vests and an Australian bush hat.
He never properly identified himself, but it was obvious that he was a “civilian contractor” from the logo on his shirt. When I tried to explain why we were there, he literally told me to shut my mouth until I was told to speak. Then he told my Iraqi translator to sit in the blistering heat while he escorted me — the American — inside to see if our Iraqi interviewee was available. I have to admit it: Both my translator and I really wanted to just punch him. But I kept thinking to myself: “Who does this guy report to? If I get in his face and he comes after me, to whom do I complain?”
That was my first encounter with one of the many private security guards, service suppliers and aid workers — also known as civilian contractors — who have since become an integral part of the United States war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were even used at Abu Ghraib to do “enhanced interrogations” — also known as torture — of suspected terrorists. Today, there is no operation that is too sensitive not to outsource to the private sector.
As the United States debates how many more troops to dispatch to Afghanistan, it might be a good time to also debate just how far America has already gone in hiring private contractors to do jobs that the State Department, Pentagon and CIA once did on their own. A good place to start is with the Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger’s new book on this subject, “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.”
Every year, more and more of the core business of national security — diplomacy, development, defense and even intelligence — “is being shifted into the hands of private contractors — much more than our public realizes,” Stanger said to me. One big reason why the United States has been able to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with so few allies is that it’s basically hired the help.
“Afghanistan and Iraq,” explained Stanger, “are our first contractors’ wars, differing from previous interventions in their unprecedented reliance on the private sector for all aspects of their execution. According to the Congressional Research Service, contractors in 2009 accounted for 48 percent of the Defense Department work force in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon is not the only government agency deploying contractors; the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development make extensive use of them as well. Contractors provide security for key personnel and sites, including United States embassies; feed, clothe and house troops; train army and police units; and even oversee other contractors. Without a multinational contractor force to fill the gap, the United States would need a draft to execute these twin interventions.”
Or, it would need real allies.
I am not against outsourcing, improving government efficiency or hiring the best people to perform specialized tasks. But the United States has fallen into a pattern of outsourcing some of the very core tasks of government — interrogation, security, democracy promotion. As more and more of this government work gets contracted and then subcontracted — or as Stanger puts it, “when money and instructions change hands multiple times in a foreign country” — the public interest can get lost, and abuse and corruption get invited in. America is also building a contractor-industrial-complex in Washington that has an economic interest in foreign expeditions. Doesn’t make it wrong; does make you want to be watchful.
In 2008, notes Stanger, roughly 80 percent of the State Department’s requested budget went out the door in the form of contracts and grants. The Army’s primary support contractor in Iraq, KBR, reportedly has some 17,000 direct-hire employees there.
The United States military is now proposing a huge nation-building project for Afghanistan to replace its dysfunctional government with a state that can deliver for the Afghan people so they won’t side with the Taliban. I might be more open to that project if the United States had a true global alliance to share the burden of an effort that will take decades. But it doesn’t. European publics do not favor this war, and allies will only pony up just enough troops to get their official “Frequent United States Ally Card” renewed. The United States will make up the difference by hiring private contractors.
The government may operate more efficiently with private contractors. And outsourcing can often deliver real innovation, especially in economic development. Still, I’m old-fashioned: When America is acting abroad, I prefer its public services to be provided as much as possible by public servants motivated by, and schooled in, the common good and simple patriotism — not profits or private ambitions.