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Soldiers gone, but contractors remain in Iraq

U.S. relies heavily on civilians, with even more in Afghanistan

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By Lindsay Wise | Houston Chronicle


The final convoy of U.S. troops in Iraq — soldiers from Fort Hood — drove over the border to Kuwait last week, whooping and cheering, as the United States declared an end to the war.

But remaining behind are thousands of civilian contractors — about half of them armed.

State Department officials have said they expect that 5,000 security contractors will be needed in Iraq next year to protect U.S. diplomats.

A “life support” team of an additional 4,500 contractors will cook, clean and provide transportation and other services.

Their continued presence in Iraq — as well as in Afghanistan, where there is almost one contractor for every service member — demonstrates how much the U.S. government has come to rely on private companies to provide “war services” abroad.

In Afghanistan, 105,000 U.S. troops are supported by about 101,000 civilian contractors.

Only 23,000 of those contractors are U.S. citizens. About 50,000 are Afghans, and 27,900 come from other countries.

The reality is that the United States no longer can conduct large or sustained military operations or respond to major disasters without heavy support from contractors, according to a report released in August by the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report revealed that at least $31 billion — and possibly as much as $60 billion — has been lost to contract waste and fraud. It concluded that the government was relying too much on contractors and that major reforms were needed.

“The U.S. military can’t move, fight or sustain itself without contractor support today,” said Steven Schooner, a law professor at George Washington University who has studied contractor fatalities.

The dependence on contractors also means that the American public underestimates the human cost of war, Schooner said.

At least 2,871 contractors have been killed and more than 74,000 injured overseas since 2001, according to Labor Department data.

Pentagon reports show that 6,317 troops died during the same period.

Houston-based KBR, once the largest U.S. contractor in Iraq, declined to comment and refused to disclose the number of KBR employees killed and injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Four years ago, KBR told the Houston Chronicle that 97 KBR workers had died in Iraq.

The Labor Department data shows no deaths for KBR or Halliburton, KBR’s former parent company. But it does list 127 deaths and about 29,000 injuries of workers for Service Employees International Inc., a KBR subsidiary located in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying federal taxes.

The department’s statistics are based on the number of insurance claims filed with its Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation. Workers who do not seek compensation are not counted, so the data likely underreports the number of civilian contractors killed or injured.

“Most people seem to agree that the numbers are significantly low,” Schooner said. “Nobody knows how many deaths haven’t been reported to the Labor Department.”

Schooner questioned whether Americans would be as complacent about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if contractor deaths were added to the official casualty figures. Doing so would bring the death toll closer to 10,000.

“Historically, the more we believe in what we’re fighting for, the more willing we are to tolerate sacrifice, but what the data shows is that in the modern era after World War II, as troop fatalities rise, the public’s willingness to continue fighting abroad drops,” Schooner said.

More contractors than troops died in Iraq in the past couple of years, yet their deaths went largely unnoticed, Schooner said.

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