Soldier of fortune
A for-profit army carries out U.S. mission around the world
By Jim Krane
In Iraq, private contractors do just about everything a soldier would do. They sling Spam in mess tents. They tote guns along base perimeters. They shoot. They get shot. Sometimes they get killed. And it's not just in Iraq, but around the world -- in conflict zones from Liberia to Kosovo to Afghanistan -- that the United States is putting hired help behind the front lines to ease the burden of its overworked armed forces.
By paying civilians to handle military tasks, the Bush administration is freeing up U.S. troops to fight. But the use of contractors also hides the true costs of war.
Their dead aren't added to official body counts. Their duties -- and profits -- are hidden by close-mouthed executives who won't give details to Congress. And as their coffers and roles swell, companies are funneling earnings into political campaigns and gaining influence over military policy -- even getting paid to recommend themselves for lucrative contracts.
For the civilians handling these soldierly jobs, the risks are high. A contractor near the Iraqi city of Fallujah died and an American engineer was wounded when their vehicles came under attack recently, said the British-based company, European Landmine Solutions.
The chief military contractor in Iraq, Kellogg, Brown & Root, has had three workers killed in Iraq, two of whom died in ambushes.
Another top U.S. military contractor, DynCorp, saw three of its workers killed in an ambush by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip this month.
In Afghanistan, two civilian contractors working for the CIA were slain in an ambush Saturday.
And in Liberia, contractors guarding the U.S. Embassy have fought like soldiers during rebel sieges, at times lifting guns from slain rebels, said Horacio "Hersh" Hernandez, a retired Marine with Intercon security in Liberia. He owes his job, he says, to post-Cold War defense cuts and a slew of new U.S. engagements.
"It's a massive business boom for the private security field," Hernandez said.
As the United States slashes the size of its standing army from 2.1 million in 1990 to 1.4 million now, the Pentagon began running out of soldiers to handle postwar violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo while facing threats elsewhere.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued wars could still be fought without boosting the number of soldiers by outsourcing just about everything except battlefield gunning.
Under U.S. employ in Iraq, American companies turn profits while operating missile defense batteries, piloting unmanned aerial vehicles and snapping satellite pictures of bombing targets.
The machine-gun toting guards who shadow Afghan President Hamid Karzai and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, are private-sector workers, as are those who built and operate the cavernous white mess tent on the base of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Baghdad.
There, a $3 million contract with Kellogg, Brown & Root paid for the tent's construction and the Bangladeshi and Indian cooks who feed 4,000 troops daily. One soldier breakfasting inside the tent, a nine-year veteran, said she's been sent to patrol Baghdad since contractors took her job as a cook.
With Kellogg, Brown & Root handling everything from mail delivery to bug control on U.S. bases in Iraq and around the world, plenty of other soldiers are finding themselves on the front lines.
Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution military analyst, estimates there is one contractor for every 10 foreign soldiers in Iraq -- 10 times the private involvement in the Gulf War.
Worldwide, private military companies earn about $100 billion in yearly government contracts, Singer believes. Ninety private military companies are listed on the Web site for the Center for Public Integrity. In comparison, the U.S. defense budget is about $380 billion this year, excluding emergency spending, and is expected to rise to more than $400 billion.
Some of the firms working in Iraq are huge, politically connected conglomerates like Halliburton -- corporate parent of Kellogg, Brown & Root and formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Others are little known, like Erinys, a security firm chocked with former South African special forces that will train 6,500 Iraqis to guard oil installations.
The world of military contracts is a murky one.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, important buildings in the capitals bristle with gun-toting Americans in sunglasses. They favor khaki photographers' vests and a few military accoutrements, but lack the name tags and identifying patches of a soldier.
Ask who they work for and one often hears "no comment" or "I can't tell you that."
Contractors' deaths aren't counted among the tally of more than 350 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. No one is sure how many private workers have been killed, or, indeed, even how many are toiling in Iraq for the U.S. government. Estimates range from under 10,000 to more than 20,000 -- which could make private contractors the largest U.S. coalition partner ahead of Britain's 11,000 troops.
Global Risks Strategies, a security firm with about 1,100 workers on the ground -- mainly armed former Nepalese and Fijian soldiers -- is among security companies that have more personnel in Iraq than some other countries taking part in the occupation, Singer said.
To the consternation of U.S. lawmakers, there is little or no Congressional oversight of contractors hired by the executive branch of government -- whether through the State Department, Pentagon or the CIA.
Many, like San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., which trains Iraqi journalists, police and soldiers, are privately held firms employing ex-soldiers and spies.
"We refrain from talking about things our customers don't want us talking about," said Science Applications spokesman Jason McIntosh. "That's just good policy."
Some private contracts look like covert operations once handled by the CIA -- such as cocaine eradication in South America now done by companies that fly crop-dusters in Colombia.
In September, a contractor's spray plane was shot down and its pilot killed in Colombia. Then in February, three employees of California Microwave Systems were captured by a rebel group when their plane crashed on a U.S. anti-drug mission.
Had those been U.S. soldiers, the public outcry and government response would have been sharp, said Deborah Avant, a political scientist at George Washington University.
The connection between companies and politicians in Washington raises the specter of executives lobbying for a hawkish U.S. foreign policy since they profit from war, Avant said.
Iraq contractors DynCorp, Bechtel and Halliburton donated more than $2.2 million -- mainly to Republican causes like the 2000 Bush presidential campaign -- between 1999 and 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the case of Halliburton, the U.S. government hired the company in Iraq without a competitive bid, after the company recommended itself in a study. Halliburton's Iraq oil services contract, worth $1.59 billion so far, will be extended until December or January. The company reported Wednesday that its government work in Iraq and elsewhere helped boost yearly third-quarter earnings by 39 percent, to $4.14 billion.
Contractors don't appear to be pulling personnel out of Iraq despite attacks -- something that has chased U.S. forces out of hotspots before.
A look at major private military contractors and some of the countries where they've operated:
• DynCorp, a division of Computer Sciences Corp., based in Reston, Va.: Iraq, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Sudan
• Kellogg, Brown & Root Inc., a unit of Halliburton, based in Houston: Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• Vinnell Corp., a division of Northrop Grumman, based in Fairfax, Va.: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Taiwan, Turkey, Japan
• MPRI, a division of L-3 Communications, Alexandria, Va.: Iraq, Colombia, Croatia, Equatorial Guinea, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kuwait, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Taiwan, Macedonia
• ArmorGroup, based in U.S. and U.K.: Iraq, Angola, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation
• Defence Systems Ltd., a subsidiary of ArmorGroup, based in London: Iraq, Algeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Colombia , United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia
• Control Risks Group Ltd., based in London: Iraq, Algeria, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, French Guiana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Colombia, Myanmar
• Sandline International, based in London: Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea
Publication Date: 11-04-2003