So far the worst effects of contracting out to private companies have occurred in Iraq, and their presence in Afghanistan so far hasn't been as big of a story. Because President Obama promised to crack down on the abuses of contractors, I think a lot of people assumed they wouldn't be used as much and would be less of a problem. Wrong. The Wall Street Journal of all places reported that the number of contractors in Afghanistan has been rising recently. Contractors now outnumber our soldiers there, despite the surge in troop numbers implemented by Obama.
Recent Pentagon plans will continue this phenomenon. The LA Times wrote a few days ago that the military will likely swap out 14,000 troops in Afghanistan involved in support duties for 14,000 combat troops, and will hire contractors to replace the support troops. This is intended to increase the amount of combat soldiers in Afghanistan without an overall troop increase that would be highly controversial back at home. Based on previous contractor experience, we can expect the cost of the war to rise as a result, with a lower quality of services to our troops. Also, we can expect more of the worst kind of contractor--mercenaries like those of Blackwater, because those support troops include "guards" according to the article.
Considering Obama's campaign rhetoric with respect to military contracting, these decisions are highly disappointing. They will flush taxpayer money down the toilet and hurt the war effort through providing poor services to our troops and through their lack of discipline and accountability. A recent story shows the depth to which they can do such damage.
CBS News picked up a story 2 days ago from the GlobalPost (CBS story here, GlobalPost story here) about reconstruction contractors hired by the US paying as much as 20% of their revenue to the Taliban to not attack their projects. Yes, you read that correctly, US taxpayer dollars have been funneled to our enemy through contractors. Granted, these are reconstruction contractors and not military contractors, but it demonstrates the same problem of employing a private company in a war zone that does not answer directly to the US government. And, who knows, maybe companies guarding our diplomats and bases or providing services to our troops have done the same.
It seems increasingly unlikely that President Obama will crack down on war contractors. Congress must fill his void of leadership and either reduce the usage of contractors, or, at minimum, create regulations to make them fully accountable for their actions and the quality of their work. It might make for an interesting coalition of anti-war progressives from the left, deficit hawks in the center, and libertarians on the right.
Addendum: The best source for information on war contractors is the great investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He wrote Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, an excellent book and devastating critique of military contracting and American foreign policy. You can check out everything he writes on his blog/news site http://rebelreports.com/. He appears frequently on Bill Maher, Democracy Now!, and some of the MSNBC shows pretty frequently, and usually posts the videos there.