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Increased US Reliance on Contractors September 4, 2009

Posted by Stephen Abott in Analysis.
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Several accounts of debauchery and unethical behavior by contractors working at the US embassy in Kabul were reported this week.  Aside from an unsettling and embarrassing scandal, such behavior evokes serious questions about the current structure of US engagement abroad as the DOD increasingly relies upon contractors to support overseas operations.

The DOD role as the “first responder” for security and short-term foreign assistance has expanded and changed the character of US overseas engagement over the past decade.  This growing role for the military puts a uniformed face on US overseas engagement, making State Department diplomatic efforts even more difficult.  The issue is further complicated by the use of contractors, as a lack of sufficient contract management can lead to wasteful spending, inadequate support, and contractor abuses.

Yet, the DOD is essentially unable to execute large missions without contractor support.  The DOD uses contractors for non-combat activities, such as logistics, construction, linguist services, and transportation.  Contractors can be hired and deployed quickly, often at less long-term cost to DOD than developing a greater internal capacity for such efforts. According to a recent CRS report, Afghanistan currently has the highest ratio of contractors to US military personnel in any war in American history.  As of March 2009, civilian contractors outnumber US military personnel in Afghanistan 1.3 to 1; in Iraq, contractors nearly equal the number of uniformed personal, .94 to 1.

This begs the question, should Washington rely so heavily on contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what jobs should and shouldn’t be done by temporary contracted personnel? In the wake of the Kabul revelations, these are not arbitrary questions and should be asked in Washington’s corridors of power.

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