President Donald Trump speaks frequently about his desire to bring U.S. troops home from places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and bring a close to the “endless wars” he inherited. Just last Wednesday he boasted that “we left Syria.” This isn’t even true in an official sense, but troop numbers also only tell part of the story. Some boots on the ground are not being counted at all.
In a stunning report on Wednesday, the New York Times revealed details of a Jan. 3 attack by the Somali jihadi group Al-Shabab on a base in neighboring Kenya that left three Americans dead. The Pentagon was so alarmed by the incident that it quickly deployed 100 troops to restore security at the base at Manda Bay. But it got almost no attention in the United States, perhaps because it occurred in the aftermath of the killing of another contractor, in Iraq, which set off the tit-for-tat cycle that nearly brought the U.S. and Iran to war. Two of the three Americans were civilian contractors.
The U.S. increasingly relies on private contractors in a vast number of overseas military operations, creating a status quo that both obscures the extent of the U.S. military’s reach and creates a host of new dangers. If Trump moves ahead with troop withdrawals—the Pentagon is reportedly considering a major drawdown in Africa even as conflicts with jihadi groups in Somalia and West Africa intensify—these contractors could take on an even greater role.
Trump may be perfectly happy with this new status quo. His administration’s reliance on contract workers goes far beyond military roles. Erik Prince, founder of the contractor Blackwater (now known as Academi) and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is an influential if unofficial figure in the administration and has publicly advocated replacing U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan with contractors. Trump, who recently boasted inaccurately that Saudi Arabia paid $1 billion for the deployment of U.S. troops, doesn’t always appear to grasp the distinction between troops and mercenaries. The use of private soldiers generally fits with his transactional approach to foreign policy.
But this drift toward privatization began before Trump took office. Under the George W. Bush administration, Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, inspiring anger and debate over the use of military contractors in Iraq. As a senator, Barack Obama sponsored legislation to rein in the use of these contractors and hold them accountable for abuses. But as president, he relied heavily on them, even as he worked to withdraw troops. As the analyst Micah Zenko pointed out in 2016, “Under Obama, more private military contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than all the U.S. troops deployed to those countries.” While all the Democratic presidential candidates, to varying degrees, have pledged to withdraw U.S. troops and bring an end to “forever wars,” it’s worth questioning to what degree they will follow in Obama’s footsteps and simply privatize those wars.
“Contractors are like crack cocaine for presidents, because it allows them to extend American muscle but not under congressional oversight. It’s a way to circumvent democratic accountability for military force,” says Sean McFate, a former Army officer who worked as a private military contractor in several countries in Africa and now teaches at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
The increased privatization makes war less obvious and therefore more convenient. As with armed drones, options that lower the political costs of military force tend to make that force more appealing. Meanwhile, Congress and the media have become less inclined to exercise oversight. Operating under the radar, military contractors have been implicated in a slew of labor violations, including human trafficking. Those involved in combat don’t have access to the same medical and logistical support as troops—while service members were evacuated to Germany for treatment for concussions after the recent Iranian missile attack, injured contractors are usually treated in the country where they’re fighting and left there. And as the Blackwater incident shows, contractors often aren’t subject to the same level of legal accountability for abuses and war crimes. Across the board, contractors are designed to be invisible. The Pentagon normally doesn’t even track their deaths.
“Americans don’t care about dead contractors coming home in body bags,” McFate said. “They care about dead Marines coming home in body bags.”
The death in December of Nawres Hamid, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, was an exception to that rule, in that it sparked a major international incident. This probably had more to do with the incentives of the Trump administration to escalate the conflict with Iran than with the incident itself. The muted reaction to the attack in Kenya is more typical. Had one Army soldier not also been killed, the attack would probably have gotten even less attention.
According to a 2018 Pentagon report, the first to acknowledge the presence of contractors in the Syrian war zone, the U.S. military is relying on about 5,500 contractors in both Iraq and Syria. About half of these are U.S. citizens and the rest are third-country nationals. The majority of these serve in support roles, not combat, but it’s hard to tell from the scant official data exactly how many people there currently are, or what exactly they’re doing. This may be precisely the point. In nonofficial war zones like Somalia, things get even murkier.
The U.S. isn’t the only country increasingly relying on mercenaries to fight its wars. Russia has used private firms to carry out semi-official, and plausibly deniable, military operations in Ukraine, Syria, and places much farther afield. The most famous of these is Wagner Group, controlled by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin—a familiar name for Mueller report readers as he’s also linked to the infamous Internet Research Agency. In early 2018, a U.S. airstrike killed as many as 300 Russian contractors working for Wagner embedded with Syrian government forces. The incident illustrated the strange nature of modern privatized warfare. The U.S. killed more Russians than at any point during the Cold War, but both sides quickly brushed the matter under the rug. It might have turned out differently if the Americans had killed uniformed Russian troops.
While we should be thankful that incidents like this don’t escalate to nuclear war, the increased privatization of war is concerning. McFate worries about the long-term impact of the privatization of war. He says that while politicians tend to assume that when contractors finish their tours, “they’ll just reintegrate back into civilian life” like service members, that’s often not the case.
“We’re seeing mercenaries around the world in Yemen, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Syria, and Ukraine and Congo and Venezuela: A lot of them got their start working on U.S. government contracts in places like Iraq,” he says. “These are profit-maximizing entities. They look for clients. They get to know each other. We’ve created this whole infrastructure of a global market for war.”