Monday, December 7, 2009

Digging Deeper Into Private Contractors

One of the lessons I learned doing disaster relief in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina is that the sheer fiscal irresponsibility of the Republican plan to "shrink government." By 2005, President Bush and his Republican henchmen had been running the show for five years, repeating the mantra of "small government." Then Hurricane Katrina came along. Responding to the largest disaster in American history requires certain needs, and the federal government chose to meet these needs through private contractors, including many with a history of contributing to the Republican Party, and many who received massive contracts without competitive bidding. After all, stuff needs to get done, and if the government can't do it, it has to pay someone anywhere from 4x to 10x the cost to do it. In our experience in Biloxi, we found private contractors to be every bit as wasteful as the government. Without accountability, private contractors have no need to be "more efficient" than the allegedly lackadaisical public sector.

Now, to Afghanistan. Last Thursday we noted the skyrocking private contractor surge. There are now 104,000 contractors in Afghanistan, up 40% from June 2009, representing 57% of the Pentagon's current workforce. These are the kind of numbers President Obama and Secretary Gates will avoid mentioning, because doing so would reveal the true scope and cost of the war. Because our all-volunteer army is so hopelessly depleted after nearly a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S is now using a higher percentage of private contractors in Afghanistan than any war in American history.

Who are these private contractors? Well, there's DynCorp International and Fluor Corp. The two donated $400,000 to federal candidates last election. Don't worry- they covered their bases and donated to both parties. They've now been awarded contracts in Afghanistan that could come to $7.5 billion each. This after a rare instance of federal auditing in which the government found that DynCorp's contract to train Iraqi police had been so badly mismanaged that "they were unable to determine how the money was spent." The government has launched a Commission on Wartime Contracting, which will issue a comprehensive 2011. Just in time for the withdrawal! It's unclear to me why the government needs such a long time to address this issue, when the financial waste is so damaging. I suppose that's what $400k can buy you, especially during a recession.


  1. I'd really like to know about private contractors in Afghanistan (and Iraq). Are there any really good books on this, or news stories, etc. that would be worth reading? Can you cover this more here?

  2. i've been thinking about this recently, since my academic research (separate from the blog) is on the architecture and infrastructure of disaster zones. so far, not looking at war (yet) but starting with natural disasters. what about countries where governments are almost uninvolved in reconstruction (such as pisco in peru). in some ways, reconstruction is as "efficient" as possible, since it's being done by local people and private speculators who are unconnected with the government. the tradeoff is that nobody is following earthquake building codes (which aren't really instituted by the government anyway). what are some options for reconstruction in places like these?