Bring up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of the first things bound to come up is contractors -- companies such as Blackwater/Xe, DynCorp, and ArmorGroup. But what most Americans do not realize is that they've only seen the tip of the iceberg. The United States has become addicted to contractors -- and it's an unsustainable habit.
In 2009, contractors accounted for 48 percent of the Defense Department's workforce in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) use them extensively as well. Compare that with the height of the Vietnam War, when contractors accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. presence on the ground; today, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan outnumber American men and women in uniform.
In addition to providing security, contractors feed, clothe, and house U.S. troops; they train army and police units, spearhead development projects, and even oversee other contractors and subcontractors. Without contractors, the United States would undoubtedly need a draft to ramp up its troop presence in Afghanistan.
Waging war through contractors also means a lot of waste. Money must change hands multiple times in a foreign country -- a standing invitation for corruption. The contracting apparatus spawns a web of complex financial transactions that the U.S. Congress cannot effectively oversee. Funding it is equally problematic; Washington continues to finance the struggle against terrorism through supplemental appropriations as though they were emergency operations. As the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has painstakingly documented, throwing taxpayer money at a problem in this fashion has led to astonishing waste, fraud, and abuse. Unless something changes, Afghanistan will be no different.
But perhaps most alarmingly, Washington's addiction to outsourcing has rendered much of its war-fighting wholly opaque. Despite having spearheaded the Federal Funding Transparency and Accountability Act (FFATA) as a senator, Obama is now leading a war in Afghanistan whose funding is effectively a black hole. The website USAspending.gov, created by FFATA, provided data for the analysis below. Yet information on subcontracts, the vehicle for operationalizing most contractor spending, was supposed to be made available to the public by January 2009. Nearly a year later, it remains shrouded in secrecy (the site is still "under development").
This means that taxpayers have little information about whom their government is paying to carry out the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Thanks to USAspending.gov, we can at least follow the money flowing through prime contracts and grants for the main government agencies involved in the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's a taste of how bad it has gotten: