Many of you know that after one year teaching high school in Deerfield Beach, Florida, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan as a civilian/military advisor to the Afghan Army. I will tell you we had to maintain the same level of military bearing and conduct as the active duty force we supported. There was no growing of facial hair, haircuts were the same and we wore desert camp uniforms. The only difference was we were not authorized to carry weapons — yes, I know, I spent two-and-a-half years in a combat zone without a personal weapon; I had a knife! Now, you can bet your bottom dollar that when we went out on a mission convoy, there was always a “spare” weapon somewhere…wink wink.
Our mission was critical because we could provide continuity and develop a lasting relationship with the Afghans, which is crucial. However, the main point was that our military was stretched so thin, they needed assistance from recently retired Senior officers and non-commissioned officers to fill the gap.
We keep hearing about how we’ve reduced our active duty footprint in the combat theaters of operation in Iraq and Afghanistan — but what is the ground truth?
As reported by the Military Times, Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan still outnumber U.S. troops by a 3-to-1 margin according to new research released this week, raising questions again about the role those workers play in the ongoing wars overseas and the oversight they receive.
The data, compiled by the Congressional Research Service and first reported by Politico, shows contractor numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan dating back to fiscal 2007. Combined, the Defense Department spent more than $220 billion on contractors in both war zones for a variety of services and support.
The numbers show that the non-military defense workers have outnumbered U.S. troops in Afghanistan continuously since mid-2011, even as the numbers of both have drawn down steadily. But the ratio between the two groups continues to widen as administration officials work to reduce the roles played by armed military personnel in the war-torn country.
In early 2012, the number of defense contractors in Afghanistan peaked at more than 117,000 individuals, as compared to around 88,000 U.S. servicemembers.
Of those contractors, about 23 percent were working as supplemental security personnel, and more than 70 percent were foreign nationals receiving money from American companies and agencies.
The latest figures available, for the first few months of 2016, show nearly 29,000 defense contractors still in Afghanistan, with fewer than 9,000 U.S. troops stationed there. About two-thirds of the contractors were foreign nationals, but only about 10 percent were providing security services.
Defense Department records show the majority of their contractors in Afghanistan today (more than 1,200) are providing logistics and maintenance services, to both American and Afghan troops. About 1,600 are working as translators, 1,700 as construction workers, and 2,200 as base support professionals.
One of the consequences of drawn-out, nation-building type operations is the development of logistical infrastructure that has to be maintained, supported. I will admit, the difference between Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom first rotation was monumental. In Desert Storm, we were out in the open desert, food came out of a can and a shower was standing under a fella in a truck bed pouring cold water over you. I will never forget driving two hours to get a “Wolf Burger,” standing in line for another hour and woofing that sucker down in less than two minutes. I had one phone call back to my wife Angela that lasted 3 minutes, out of the AT&T tent — again, another long drive in the desert. When we redeployed out of the desert being relieved in place, that first hot shower, well, it was heavenly.
In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was Spartan living, but by the time I departed, there were contracted “dining facilities,” hot shower stalls and electricity.
My years in Afghanistan, from June 2005 to November 2007, were completely different, even downrange in Kandahar. We lived in hard barracks, had laundry facilities, hot water, internet and a shopping area that included a Burger King and Subway. Later, as I was redeploying from Kandahar, the base had grown so big there was a bus service — driven by foreign national contractors. Now, there is also a danger with foreign nationals having access onto your base and at Camp Udari in Kuwait, in 2003, we witnessed it. A local national drove his vehicle right into troops standing in the chow line; of course he was engaged with small arms fire and wounded.
The Islamic jihadist enemy is not going away, so how do we engage and reduce our dependency on contract workers? We need to conduct short-term strike operations and decentralize our operations away from large bases to a series of interdependent forward operating bases. And these have to be Spartan, since we shall only seek to conduct deployments at the 6-8 month range. We cannot have large bases and try to replicate “back home.” The focus must be on the enemy and not terrain, finding the enemy and denying him sanctuary, cutting off his supply routes and sources for logistical support and replenishment. There is still a necessity for contract support, but our force cannot be dependent upon it to the point that the ratio is disproportionate.
Our military works very closely with civilians, such as we did in Afghanistan. We have our Merchant Marines who transport our equipment into the combat zones. But, we must transform our war fighting strategies to keep the tip of the spear ready, and hungry to attack the enemy — and we can still get them a cheeseburger on occasion.