It would be good to know for certain how big the US footprint in that part of the world actually is.
Its become increasingly apparent that official data on U.S. military personnel deployed in so-called war zones overseas may be understating the actual number. Likewise, active duty military casualties account for only a portion of the American deaths suffered in Washingtons various overseas crusades in the last 20 years.
The principal mechanism for that statistical deception is the Pentagons growing use of civilian contractors, like the one killed in a drone strike targeting U.S. military on a coalition base in eastern Syria last week. According to the Congressional Research Service in January, at the end of 2022 there were approximately 22,000 contractor personnel working for the DoD throughout Central Commands area of responsibility, with a reported 7,908 contractors located in Iraq and Syria.
When most people hear that term used, they assume that the individuals involved are support personnel providing food, transportation, and other services to the military. This is true. But in many cases the contractors are substituting for armed security mercenaries if you will and they can suffer casualties at a rate similar to troops who are officially members of the U.S. armed forces.
In 2017, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, then Commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon had to substitute contractors for soldiers in order to meet the force manning levels in Afghanistan. As of October 2018, there were over 25,000 contractors in Afghanistan. Of them, 4,172 were private security contractors in Afghanistan, with 2,397 categorized as armed private security contractors.
The peak of contractor use, of course, was during the Global War on Terror, when the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in its final report in 2011 that there was an unhealthy over-reliance on military contractors by DoD, Department of State, and USAID.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact number of armed contractors in recent years. Officially they appear low. In a February 2021 report, of the 27,338 contractors in Afghanistan in late 2020, there were reportedly 1,413 armed (as opposed to unarmed) security contractors, and 96 (unarmed) private security contractors between Iraq and Syria.
But according to the CRS in 2023, the number of security contractor employees working for DOD in Iraq and Syria has fluctuated significantly over time, depending on various factors. As of the fourth quarter of FY2022, DOD reported 941 security contractor personnel in Iraq and Syria, none of whom were identified as armed security contractors.
However, in April 2022, the DoD released numbers saying of the 6,670 military contractors at the time in Iraq and Syria, 596 were designated for training and security.
Though they supposedly dont engage in direct combat, many of the Pentagons contractors are simply modern day Hessians the German mercenaries that major European powers employed during the eighteenth century. Britain used these private guns in an effort to suppress the American colonies bid for independence. Indeed, George Washingtons forces captured more than 900 hundred of them during the surprise Christmas 1776 offensive that seized Trenton and Princeton.
In our own time, the emergence of Blackwater as a key source of contractors during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted an important new component in the Pentagons strategy. Blackwater was established in late December 1996 by former Navy Seal officer Erik Prince, and the firm has subsequently undergone several name changes, most recently, Constellis. The basic business model remains intact, though, and that model has attracted imitators. A 2020 insider account by one of the firms operatives should dispel any remaining illusions that its personnel provided support services to the U.S. military only.
Contractors in combat situations incur the enhanced risks of such a role. Calculations from Brown Universitys Watson Institute indicated that 4,898 U.S. soldiers had perished in Iraq as of September 1, 2021. The number of deaths among contractors was close behind at 3,650. The suspicious extent of American civilian contractor fatalities was even more apparent in Afghanistan at the point that U.S. forces finally withdrew from that country in August 2021. Washington acknowledged that 2,448 U.S. military service personnel were killed during the two-decade long intervention, compared to 3,846 contractors. The Watson Institutes analysis placed the number of contractor fatalities at 3,917.
In late 2021, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted that more contractors (nearly 8,000) had died in the various post-9-11 conflicts than had U.S. armed forces personnel. Such an outcome would be impossible if the contractors were not heavily involved at some level in combat operations.
The Pentagons strategy in Syria also appears to be based on using contractors as much as possible. Officially, the United States has only about 500 troops in Syria, although recent reports places the number at more than 900. But who knows, an indiscreet comment by Gen. James B. Jarrard in 2017 suggested that the actual number of U.S. military personnel in Syria always has been closer to 4,000. Jarrard apparently included Washingtons cadre of contractors in that total, even though such an admission was inconsistent with the Pentagons official line at the time.
The DoD did not respond to a request for comment confirming the number of military contractors armed or otherwise in Syria today.
The March 23 drone attacks on U.S. military targets in eastern Syria that killed one U.S. contractor and wounded another (as well as five service members) may have offered a fresh glimpse into the actual scope (and danger) of Washingtons uninvited presence in Syria. The use of Pentagon contractors has become a convenient smokescreen that conceals the extent of Americas entanglement in unnecessary, bloody, and morally dubious armed conflicts.
We now may be seeing that process emerge with respect to U.S. support to Ukraine for its war against Russia. Former National Security Council staff member Alexander Vindman, famed for his role in the first impeachment proceeding against Donald Trump, is openly pushing for Washington to send military contractors to assist Kyivs efforts to repair damaged weapons systems. CSIS already suggested a similar move in May 2022 to send U.S. battlefield contractors. It would not require a dramatic escalation to move from such support to a direct combat role by so-called contractors.
U.S. leaders are flirting with even more dangerous risks than they did by meddling in the affairs of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, since the presence of U.S. mercenaries in Ukraine could lead to a direct clash with Russia. Both Congress and the American people must demand much greater transparency about the role of Washingtons Hessians in all combat zones.