John Whitehead's Commentary
Privatizing the War on Terror: America’s Military Contractors
“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes… known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”—James Madison
America’s troops may be returning home from Iraq, but contrary to President Obama’s assertion that “the tide of war is receding,” we’re far from done paying the costs of war. In fact, at the same time that Obama is reducing the number of troops in Iraq, he’s replacing them with military contractors at far greater expense to the taxpayer and redeploying American troops to other parts of the globe, including Africa, Australia and Israel. In this way, the war on terror is privatized, the American economy is bled dry, and the military-security industrial complex makes a killing—literally and figuratively speaking.
The war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has already cost taxpayers more than $2 trillion and could go as high as $4.4 trillion before it’s all over. At least $31 billion (and as much as $60 billion or more) of that $2 trillion was lost to waste and fraud by military contractors, who do everything from janitorial and food service work to construction, security and intelligence—jobs that used to be handled by the military. That translates to a loss of $12 million a day since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan. To put it another way, the government is spending more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety.
Over the past two decades, America has become increasingly dependent on military contractors in order to carry out military operations abroad (in fact, the government’s extensive use of private security contractors has surged under Obama). According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States can no longer conduct large or sustained military operations or respond to major disasters without heavy support from contractors. As a result, the U.S. employs at a minimum one contractor to support every soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq (that number increases dramatically when U.S. troop numbers decrease). For those signing on for contractor work, many of whom are hired by private contracting firms after serving stints in the military, it is a lucrative, albeit dangerous, career path (private contractors are 2.75 times more likely to die than troops). Incredibly, while base pay for an American soldier hovers somewhere around $19,000 per year, contractors are reportedly pulling in between $150,000 - $250,000 per year.
The exact number of military contractors on the U.S. payroll is hard to pin down, thanks to sleight-of-hand accounting by the Department of Defense and its contractors. However, according to a Wartime Contracting Commission report released in August 2011, there are more than 260,000 private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than the number of ground troops in both countries. As noted, that number increases dramatically when troops are withdrawn from an area, as we currently see happening in Iraq. Pratap Chatterjee of the Center for American Progress estimates that “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.”
With paid contractors often outnumbering enlisted combat troops, the American war effort dubbed by George W. Bush as the “coalition of the willing” has since evolved into the “coalition of the billing.” The Pentagon’s Central Command counts 225,000 contractors working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Between December 2008 and December 2010, the total number of private security contractors in Afghanistan increased by 413% while troop levels increased 200%. Private contractors provide a number of services, including transport, construction, drone operation, and security. One military contractor, Blackbird, is composed of former CIA operatives who go on secret missions to recover missing and captured US soldiers. Then there is the Lincoln Group which became famous for engaging in covert psychological operations by planting stories in the Iraqi press that glorified the U.S. mission. Global Strategies Group guards the consulate in Basra for $401 million. SOC Inc. protects the US embassy for $974 million.
Unfortunately, fraud, mismanagement and corruption have become synonymous with the U.S. government’s use of military contractors. McClatchy News “found that U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale programs and projects [in Afghanistan] grew from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion despite the government's questions about their effectiveness or cost.” One program started off as a modest wheat program and “ballooned into one of America's biggest counterinsurgency projects in southern Afghanistan despite misgivings about its impact.” Another multi-billion-dollar program resulted in the construction of schools, clinics and other public buildings that were so poorly built that they might not withstand a serious earthquake and will have to be rebuilt. Then there was the $300 million diesel power plant that was built despite the fact that it wouldn’t be used regularly “because its fuel cost more than the Afghan government could afford to run it regularly.” RWA, a group of three Afghan contractors, was selected to build a 17.5 mile paved road in Ghazni province. They were paid $4 million between 2008 and 2010 before the contract was terminated with only 2/3 of a mile of road paved.
Mind you, with the U.S. spending more than $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, these examples of ineptitude and waste represent only a fraction of what is being funded by American taxpayer dollars. (Investigative reports reveal that large amounts of cash derived from U.S. aid and logistics spending are being flown out of the country on a regular basis by Afghan officials, including $52 million by the Afghan vice president, who was allowed to keep the money.) Yet what most Americans fail to realize is that we’re funding the very individuals we claim to be fighting. The war effort has become so corrupt that U.S. taxpayers are not only being bilked by military contractors but are also being forced to indirectly fund insurgents and warlords in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban, which receives money from military contractors in exchange for protection. This is rationalized away as a “cost of doing business” in those countries. As the Financial Times reports, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan “found that extortion of funds from US construction and transportation projects was the second-biggest funding source for insurgent groups.”
Despite what one might think, the boom in contracting work in the war zones isn’t necessarily aiding U.S. employment, given that large numbers of contractors are actually foreign nationals. For example, over 90% of the private security contractors in Afghanistan are Afghans. One contractor, Triple Canopy, most of whose guards are from Uganda and Peru, has a $1.53 billion contract with the State Department to protect its employees. ArmorGroup North America (AGNA), which is contracted to secure the US embassy in Kabul, hires many Nepalese (known as Gurkhas) whose English is not proficient. “One guard described the situation as so dire that if he were to say to many of the Gurkhas, ‘There is a terrorist standing behind you,’ those Gurkhas would answer ‘Thank you sir, and good morning.’”
The practices employed by the military contractors also reflect poorly on America’s commitment to human rights—both in the way that they treat their employees and in their employees’ behavior. For example, Triple Canopy houses its employees in overcrowded shipping containers. In addition to soliciting underage Chinese prostitutes, AGNA contractors have also been described as “peeing on people, eating potato chips out of [buttock] cracks, vodka shots out of [buttock] cracks (there is video of that one), broken doors after drnken [sic] brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity…” This behavior is not reserved to lower level employees, and has been observed and even encouraged by upper level management. Blackwater employees have also been accused of weapons smuggling as well as cocaine and steroid use. Despite all this, Blackwater—which, as the New York Times has reported, “created a web of more than 30 shell companies or subsidiaries in part to obtain millions of dollars in American government contracts after the security company came under intense criticism for reckless conduct in Iraq”—still won a cut of a $10 billion contract given out by the State Department in 2010.
Despite the high levels of corruption, waste, mismanagement and fraud by military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government continues to shield them, resisting any attempts at greater oversight or accountability. War, after all, has become a huge money-making venture, and America, with its vast military empire, is one of its best customers. Indeed, the American military-industrial complex has erected an empire unsurpassed in history in its breadth and scope and dedicated to conducting perpetual warfare throughout the earth.
What most Americans fail to recognize is that these ongoing wars have little to do with keeping the country safe and everything to do with enriching the military industrial complex at taxpayer expense. It’s the military industrial complex (the illicit merger of the armaments industry and the government) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against more than 50 years ago and which has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation’s fragile infrastructure today.
Unfortunately, Americans have been inculcated with a false, misplaced sense of patriotism about the military that equates devotion to one’s country with supporting the war machine so that any mention of cutting back on the massive defense budget is immediately met with outrage. Yet the military-industrial complex is engaged in a deadly game, one that all presidents, including Obama, foster. And the consequences, as Eisenhower recognized, are grave:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.