The Iraq War’s Outsourcing Snafu

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Ever since Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” leaders at all levels of government, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been outsourcing as much work as possible to the private sector. This is generally a good idea, but when it comes to the military, this trend may have gone too far.

Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Corporate Warriors,” estimates that there are 20,000 to 30,000 civilians in Iraq performing traditional military functions, from maintaining weapons systems to guarding supply convoys. If you add foreigners involved in reconstruction and oil work, the total soars to 50,000 to 75,000. To put this into perspective: All of Washington’s allies combined account for 23,000 troops in Iraq. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Singer quips that “President George W. Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ might thus be more aptly described as the ‘coalition of the billing.’ ”

Let us stipulate that most contractors are upstanding, hardworking individuals who perform valuable and dangerous work. At least 175 have been killed and 900 wounded in Iraq. But their labor has been tarnished by scandals and snafus too numerous to ignore.


Oil-services giant Halliburton and the security firm Custer Battles, among others, have been accused of swindling U.S. taxpayers. Other contractors are said to have been simply ineffective. Vinnell Corp. did such a poor job of training Iraqi army recruits that half of its first battalion walked off the job. The Army had to step in to perform the work itself.

Other companies have been accused of human rights violations: Interrogators from CACI International were in the middle of the Abu Ghraib mess. And still others have caused major problems by failing to coordinate with the military chain of command. The most notorious example was the decision by four Blackwater employees to enter Fallouja on March 31, 2004, without notifying the local Marine garrison. Their well-publicized deaths in an ambush forced the Marines into a costly offensive to try to regain control of the city.

There is nothing new or nefarious about privatizing military support functions. But, in Iraq, the contractors aren’t just building latrines or staffing mess halls. They’re also running around with assault rifles and black body armor performing “tactical” functions. Many are well-trained U.S. or British veterans, but others are Rambo wannabes or sordid desperados. Among the mercenaries who have surfaced in Iraq are South Africans who were members of apartheid-era death squads and Chileans who served in Pinochet’s security services.

When U.S. service members are accused of wrongdoing, they are investigated and, if necessary, court-martialed. That’s not the case with civilians who are generally not covered by the laws of their home countries for crimes committed abroad. The Iraqi legal system could hold them to account, but in practice Baghdad won’t do anything that might lead to an exodus of foreign firms. Dozens of U.S. and British soldiers have been prosecuted for misconduct in Iraq -- but not a single contractor.

A lack of accountability leads to occurrences such as those described by four former Custer Battles employees who claim that poorly trained Kurds on the firm’s payroll killed innocent motorists. In one incident, a guard supposedly fired his AK-47 into a passenger car to clear a traffic jam. In another, an aggressive driver in a giant pickup truck allegedly pulverized a sedan with children inside. When true (the firm denies any wrongdoing), such incidents only create more insurgent recruits.

U.S. policymakers argue that they have to rely on private help because the U.S. armed forces simply aren’t big enough to do everything, and allies have not made up the shortfall. But that’s an argument for expanding the armed forces, not for hiring a lot of freelance gunslingers. Administration officials complain that a bigger army is too expensive, but are they really saving money by relying on privateers?

The most valued contractors are experienced former U.S. Special Forces operatives whose training cost the Pentagon hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are being lured out of uniform by the promise of making $500 to $1,000 a day. (If they stay in the service they’ll be lucky to make $140 a day.) And where does that money come from? Pretty much all the foreign firms in Iraq are paid by the U.S. Treasury. So the government is in competition with itself for its most skilled and hard-to-replace soldiers. Does this sort of outsourcing really make sense?