Who are the private contractors fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? An inside look at this invisible military force

The debate on privatizing the war in Afghanistan is heating up yet again, with Democratic lawmakers pledging to end so-called “forever wars.” The public is slowly recognizing the war’s hidden costs and global scale.

In 2016, 1 in 4 U.S. armed personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan was a private contractor. This means that the war is already being outsourced, yet scholars, the media and the general public know almost nothing about it.

Because contractors operate in the shadows, without effective public oversight, they allow policymakers to have their cake and eat it too – by appearing to withdraw, while keeping proxy forces in theater. Who are the contractors who actually execute American policy? Are they equipped to succeed in this important task? What risks is the U.S. asking them to take?

The simple truth is that there is little reliable data about this industry. Without this data, scholars cannot ask even the most basic questions of whether using contractors works better than the alternative, namely military personal or local forces – or, indeed, whether it works at all.

We are researchers who study the privatization of security and its implications. In our study, published on Dec. 5 in Armed Forces & Society, we shed light on some of the aspects of this largely invisible workforce for the first time.

Gaps in the data

It’s hard to get data about private military contractors, mainly because of the proprietary business secrets. Despite the fact that those companies act as proxies of the state, they are not legally obligated to share information with the public on their actions, organization or labor force.

Given how centrally private military companies feature in American foreign policy debates lately, Americans may assume that their policymakers are working from a detailed understanding of the contractor workforce. After all, the point is to weigh the contractors’ merits against uniformed service members, about whom the public have excellent information.

But this does not appear to be the case. There isn’t a detailed account of the private military industry’s practices, workforce, misconducts or contracts. Noticing this gap, in 2008, Congress instructed the Department of Defense to start collecting data on private security personnel.

However, this data is limited, as security contractors comprise just 10 to 20 percent of DOD contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rest provide mission essential functions, such as engineering, communication and transportation and many others. Those roles take place in conflict areas and place those contractors at similar risk level as the soldiers.

Since it is impossible to say anything directly about the total population of American and British contractors who have served in Iraq, we sought out a sample for which records do exist – namely, those who died and whose deaths were recorded in obituaries. They are the corporate war dead. They are not a representative sample, since some occupations and some personalities are more likely to risk death in combat than others, but in a setting without any reliable information they offer us a glimpse to this industry’s workforce.

Two U.S. private security contractors investigate the site where a military armored bus was damaged by a roadside bomb on the highway near Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004. AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

Basic demographics

We collected open source data from iCasualties, a site that collects basic data on soldiers and contractors casualties. Using this data we gathered demographic information from obituaries and news articles, on 238 contractors who perished in Iraq between 2006 and 2016.

We learned that the contractors in our sample are predominantly white man in their 40s who choose contracting as a second career. Most are veterans with significant military experience.

Among those contractors who were previously deployed as service members, many are former officers and about half of them are Special Forces veterans. They are more likely to have a college degree than their active duty counterparts, but less likely than their fellow veterans in the general population.