The Defense Department under President Donald Trump has employed thousands fewer private contractors for its wars in the Middle East, according to newly released documents.
The totals themselves do not represent a conspicuous change – the overall number of contractors has fluctuated by a thousand or more over the last 18 months. But they follow a growing sentiment in national security circles that reliance on warriors-for-hire undercuts the uniformed services and concern that Trump will repeat the mistakes of his predecessors in turning to private security contractors to help solve complex battlefield problems.
More than 42,000 private contractors, including translators, administrators as well as security personnel, are currently operating in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, down from 45,500 in the waning days of the Obama administration, according to the latest quarterly report released this week. The bulk – almost 25,000 – are in Afghanistan compared to more than 26,000 in January, amid roughly 8,500 American troops there.
About 3,800 contractors are in Iraq contributing to the ongoing war against the Islamic State group, 200 more than in the last report, working with the roughly 5,000 uniformed personnel there.
The remaining 13,500, down from 16,000, are in other undisclosed locations in the Middle East, likely on major facilities the U.S. uses such as al-Udeid air base in Qatar from which it launches some of its heavier aircraft for operations in the region.
Sources tell U.S. News that at least 1,000 contractors, if not more, are on the ground in Syria, home to two wars to which the Obama administration was averse to sending ground troops. Since 2014, the U.S. has waged clandestine operations against the Islamic State group, as well as in support of forces fighting the regime of Bashar Assad.
Trump has not felt the same restrictions in deploying conventional troops to the war-torn nation, sending 400 Rangers and Marines in recent weeks, which with special operators already there brings the total number up to about 1,000.
For those on the ground, the logistical support that contractors provide for allied forces and the covert work they reportedly perform on behalf of the U.S. government can often overlap.
The owner of a private contractor currently operating in Syria – which provides services like securing access to clean water, food and housing for U.S. forces there and the local fighters they train – says the security personnel he hired to protect his contractors also collaborate with American intelligence services operating in and around the country, performing the kinds of jobs U.S. officials might not have the manpower to do themselves or want to acknowledge publicly.
“Where somebody needs logistics, I say, ‘I can be your guy that gives you logistics and security for your logistics,'” the owner said in phone interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “People look at me and go, ‘You’re a security contractor.’ And I go, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a solution.’ I provide solutions to the U.S. government.”
Contemporary debate over the use of private contractors – which have participated in every U.S. war in some form – began in the wake of controversial actions in Iraq and other war zones by organizations like Blackwater, brought in to skirt regulations that would have hampered the uniformed military and to help political leaders meet public limits they set for the total number of Americans in harm’s way.
But whether using them for security or support services like equipment maintenance, the reliance on contractors also has knock-on effects for the uniformed members of the military whose jobs they replaced, in some cases costing active duty troops the experience they needed to keep their skills sharp.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recounted last month a visit to an Army base where he learned a unit stationed there had dispatched its helicopters to Afghanistan but that the maintenance personnel stayed behind, having been replaced by contractors to help keep down the number of deployed forces. The Texas Republican emphasized the importance of moving away from this model, as well as what he considered politically motivated caps on the total numbers of troops in a war zone.
“Getting rid of that stuff will make whatever effort you undertake against ISIS much more effective,” Thornberry told a small group of reporters at a breakfast meeting on March 22, when asked about how war plans against the Islamic State group might change under Trump.
Indeed, the number of contractors in Afghanistan performing logistics and maintenance has dropped from 11,000 to 8,500 since January, according to the Central Command report. The number of security contractors there, however, has risen from 3,400 to almost 4,000, including almost a hundred more bearing arms.
Those who have tracked the U.S. employment of private contractors in war say Thornberry’s concerns, shared by others, are not new.
“It is interesting that people are saying it right now, though, and that may indicate they are looking for a reason to push back against contractors in the current environment,” says Deborah Avant, director of the University of Denver’s Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. The argument of military effectiveness could bring all these jobs back under the control of the Department of Defense removing any alternative use for those operating in a war zone.
“There may be a little bit of self-protection on the part of military leaders – they may be worried this commander in chief could go a little rogue,” Avant says.