THE number of US-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds American combat troops in the country.
Newly released figures from by the US State and Defence departments raise fresh questions about the privatisation of the war effort and the Government’s capacity to carry out military and reconstruction campaigns. More than 180,000 civilians — Americans, Iraqis and others — are working in Iraq under US contracts. Including the recent troop surge, 160,000 soldiers and a few thousand civilian government employees are stationed in the country.
The number of private contractors, far higher than previously reported, shows how heavily the Bush Administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq — a mission criticised as being undermanned.
“These numbers are big,” said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written on military contracting. “They illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It’s the coalition of the billing.”
The numbers include at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis — all paid in US dollars.
The array of private workers promises to figure in debates on policy regarding the privatisation of military jobs and the number of Iraqi refugees allowed to resettle in the US.
But there are signs that even those mounting numbers may not tell the full story. Private security contractors, who are hired to protect government officials and buildings, were not fully counted in the survey, according to industry and government officials.
Continuing uncertainty over the numbers of armed contractors drew criticism from military experts. “We don’t have control of all the coalition guns in Iraq. That’s dangerous for our country,” said William Nash, a retired army general.
The Pentagon “is hiring guns. You can rationalise it all you want, but that’s obscene,” he said.
The US has relied more on contractors in Iraq than in any other war in the nation’s history, according to military experts. Contractors perform construction work, private security and weapons system maintenance.
Military officials say contractors cut costs while allowing troops to focus on fighting.
“The only reason we have contractors is to support the war fighter,” said Gary Motsek, the assistant deputy under-secretary of defence who oversees contractors. “Fundamentally, they’re supporting the mission as required.”
But critics worry that troops could be jeopardised if contractors, functioning outside the military’s command, refuse to deliver vital supplies under fire.
In 2004, for example, US forces were put on food rations when drivers baulked at taking supplies into a combat zone.
No single agency keeps track of the number or location of contractors.
In response to demands from Congress, the US Central Command began conducting a census last year of the contractors working on US and Iraqi bases to determine how much food, water and shelter was needed.
That census shows approximately 130,000 contractors and subcontractors working at US and Iraqi military bases.
But US military officials acknowledged that the census did not include other government agencies, including the State Department and the US Agency for International Development.