Support: Foreign Civilian Contractors Disappearing


November 25, 2008: The United States is rapidly replacing foreign contractors in Iraq with Iraqis. Currently, about half the 163,000 civilian contractors there are locals. Some 28,000 are Americans, with the rest coming from dozens of different countries. The U.S. wants to have  most of the contractors hired locally as soon as possible. This will save the United States a lot of money, as the Iraqis will be paid according to prevailing wages in Iraq. That's less than half what most of the foreign contractors are paid.

The new Status of Forces agreement (which determines what U.S. troops can do, and who will prosecute those who misbehave) takes immunity (from the local legal system) away from the contractors. The U.S. has Status of Forces agreements in all countries where American troops are stationed. In Iraq, the only problem will be for VIP security details, who are liable to get into gun battles with attackers when there are civilians about, and it's uncertain if Iraqi courts could be fair and unprejudiced. This may get interesting, as the VIP bodyguards can get good jobs in other parts of the world, but the VIPs don't want to go unprotected in a place like Iraq. 

Contractors are used by the military because they are cheaper than soldiers. This is especially true in Iraq, where most of the contractors are unskilled labor from countries with very low pay scales. These civilians still make several times what they could back home, if they could find a job back home. Foreigners were hired initially because it was too dangerous to hire Iraqis. First, there was the loyalty problem, and then there was the risk of terrorists threatening, or killing, Iraqis working on American bases. There were some Iraqis working on those bases, mainly interpreters and some key specialists. And these Iraqis faced constant danger from terrorists. This policy greatly reduced the terrorist attacks inside American bases. There were only a few in over five years, all carried out by Iraqis who had access to the bases.

For the contractors, there is some danger in Iraq, but the chances of getting killed or wounded were a third of the rate for the troops, and the troops had a casualty rate that was about a third of what it was for previous wars (like Vietnam). Moreover, in the last year, combat casualties among foreign contractors has come way down, to, like, hardly any.

Armies have always had civilians along, to perform support functions. The historical term is "camp followers." In times past, the ratio of civilians to soldiers was often much higher, like eight civilians for every one soldier. Only the most disciplined armies (like the ancient Romans at their peak), kept the ratio closer to one to one. That's the same ratio U.S. troops currently have, although it was more like 90 civilians for every hundred troops during the Surge Offensive last year.

When conscript armies became common in the 19th century, it was suddenly cheaper to replace many of those civilians with conscripts (who were paid a nominal wage.) Now that armies are going all-volunteer, it's reverting to the old days, where it was cheaper to have civilians perform a lot of support jobs.

In Iraq, most of the civilian contractors work in the well defended bases, and most of the contractor casualties are among those (about a quarter of the total) who do security or transportation jobs that take them outside the wire. But even those have a lower casualty rate than the combat troops. For the really dangerous work, the troops are used. But working in a combat zone is still dangerous, no matter what your work clothes look like.


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