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Afghanistan outsourced

Does Biden’s withdrawal include the thousands of mercenaries keeping it going?

If outsourcing has become inevitable in commerce, we cannot be surprised that it has found its place in government. In matters of national security especially, it can be of use to rely less on soldiers than on mercenaries. Russia makes extensive use of the Wagner Group, mercenaries who operate with the state’s approval in Middle Eastern and African battlefields, doing dirty work in a deniable fashion.

For the United States, the reasons to use mercenaries and other workers (collectively termed “contractors” by the Department of Defense) are numerous if a little abstract.

Contractors can be armed and unarmed. The unarmed can occupy bureaucratic positions, supplementing less sophisticated local operations. They can run logistics and maintenance — jobs which would look like rather a lot like a military occupation if foreign soldiers were doing them. 

Contractors are an extremely convenient crutch on which the US war machine often leans

The armed men, meanwhile, can be used to do the mundane security work in which American troops may be poorly placed. Their movements are also less politically sensitive than deploying soldiers in uniform. The presence of contractors in foreign lands is less “boots on the ground” than the equivalent of a private client hiring more admin and security. Contractors can be trained less rigorously and more quickly than soldiers. Their numbers can be surged largely without public notice. They have low standards of fitness — physical or psychological — to meet and maintain. Their numbers are not tracked by the Congress.

All this makes contractors an extremely convenient crutch, one on which the American war machine often leant. During the Obama years, the ratio of contractors to members of the US military in active service rose to roughly three to one.

In Afghanistan, the formal American troop presence is many times dwarfed by the numbers of contractors also present in the country. By 2016 in Afghanistan, 75 per cent of the American presence in the country was contracted. By now, there are 2,500 declared American soldiers in Afghanistan — compared to over 16,800 contractors, down from 18,000.

The contractors do much of the mundane security work in the country, and although they take fewer casualties than the soldiers, they are engaged in vital work pertinent to the continued security of Afghanistan. Without contractors, some have argued, the nascent Afghan air force could not fly, let alone fight. The country may be overrun by the Taliban and ISIS even more rapidly than feared, if Kabul’s struggling government is to be deprived of this auxiliary support.

America has been unclear as to whether the contractors would be withdrawn

An American watchdog even suggested that the wholesale removal of contractors could cripple the Afghan government and security apparatus — even more than the withdrawal of the rump of American soldiers who are left in the country. Contractors run supply chains for Afghan forces, maintain complex equipment, and stand in to train local forces. If they were to disappear, the system of defence run centrally from Kabul may collapse almost immediately. 

After Joe Biden declared last week that the United States will soon quit Afghanistan, the way forward for America’s thousands of contractors remains in question. America has been unclear as to whether the contractors would continue in their current work, or will be withdrawn along with its troops before 11 September.

Reports conflict. Perhaps the contractors may be kept — around to provide security for US bases and embassies, as well as government ministries in Kabul. They may prove to be useful foot soldiers in the humanitarian missions that the Biden administration believes it will continue to mount in Afghanistan. But these exist as only the vaguest plans at present. It’s possible they exist only on paper, fig leaves covering an abrupt exit to be succeeded by close to nothing of value.

The Pentagon feeds this uncertainty even while it claims to want to repatriate contractors and soldiers alike. John Kirby, the department of defence’s press secretary, said on Friday: “There are preliminary plans that are being revised to extract contractors with military personnel. Clearly the goal is to get all our personnel out, and I suspect that contractors will be part of that.” 

But nothing can be forecast completely. It is possible they may be withdrawn entirely — not least because contractors have caused very many problems for America in Afghanistan and Iraq. The deaths of contractors forced America’s hand before the battle of Fallujah in Iraq. And Donald Trump’s recent pardon of four contractors who killed civilians in at Nisour Square in 2007 was met with burning outrage in Iraq.

“Whether there’ll still be a need for some contractor support, I just don’t know”, Kirby said of Afghanistan after America leaves. “We don’t have that level of detail right now.”

Biden finds himself in an uncomfortable position. If the troops are withdrawn but not the contractors, he will be found to have barely kept his promises. But if the troops and the contractors leave together, Afghanistan itself will be left almost completely exposed. Although if the United States cared too much about that, it would not be withdrawing at all.

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