A member of the U.S. Mount Sinjar Assessment Team talks with locals near Sinjar, Iraq, on Aug. 13, 2014.

A member of the U.S. Mount Sinjar Assessment Team talks with locals near Sinjar, Iraq, on Aug. 13, 2014. (Courtesy of the DOD)

Wary of putting combat troops in Iraq, the U.S. government is gauging contractors’ interest in advising the Iraqi Defense Ministry and Counter Terrorism Service in a range of capacities, including force development, logistics and planning and operations.

The U.S. Army Contracting Command posted a notice last month seeking contractors willing to work on an initial 12-month contract, who should be “cognizant of the goals of reducing tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and Sunni and Shias.”

They would focus on administration, force development, procurement and acquisition, contracting, training management, public affairs, logistics, personnel management, professional development, communications, planning and operations, infrastructure management, intelligence and executive development, the notice stated.

Those services “fall within the existing mission” of the Office of Security Assistance-Iraq, “which is to help build institutional capacity of Iraq’s security ministries,” Defense Department spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said in an email.

The rapid advance of Islamic State militants in Iraq in recent months has spurred the deployment of almost 1,000 American troops to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq’s capital Baghdad and the northern city of Irbil, in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Almost 100 additional servicemembers are there as advisers with the Office of Security Assistance–Iraq, and civilian advisers may not be far behind.

President Barack Obama last month authorized airstrikes against Islamic State militants, who have overrun large swathes of Iraq, when their advances threatened U.S. personnel in Baghdad and Irbil. But he has ruled out deploying ground combat units to Iraq less than three years after bringing the last of U.S. forces home from there.

Analysts say hiring contractors is a way to avoid deploying such forces.

David Johnson, a former Army lieutenant colonel who is executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, said contractors aren’t considered “boots on the ground” in conflict zones.

“The government always seeks to minimize boots on the ground to reduce domestic political risk,” he said in an email. “The American people and media do not consider a paid contractor to represent them in the same way that they do a soldier.”

Using contractors, who, most studies show, are cheaper than soldiers, trims the official presence and still accomplishes the logistical and security objectives, he said.

Defense contractors have plenty of experience in Iraq. During the U.S. occupation, thousands of armed security contractors and support personnel worked alongside foreign and Iraqi troops to help stabilize the country.

U.S. Central Command public affairs director Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder said in an email that the notice posted by the Army last month merely seeks to roll over a contract for civilian mentors and advisers in Iraq that has existed since 2012.

“The basic services being requested (go) back… to when there was a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq,” he said.

The contract is not a vehicle to increase U.S. presence in Iraq while avoiding the deployment of additional military forces or “boots on the ground,” he said.

Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middelbury College and author of a book on wartime contracting, said new Pentagon contracts for Iraq differ from security contractors hired by the State Department, which is seeking support “for a diplomatic mission, not a military one.”

“When the Pentagon does the same, it is another matter,” said Stanger, author of the book: “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and Future of Foreign Policy.” “In the era of contractors wars, there are many ways to avoid putting boots on the ground, while committing significant U.S. resources and actually being very much militarily involved.”

Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institute, said the U.S. government has employed as many contractors as it has deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As the political premium seems always to be placed on how many troops we have abroad, the pressure to have contractors do as much as possible only grows,” he said in an email.

Incidents such as the killing of civilians by Blackwater employees in Baghdad in 2007 remind policymakers of the dangers of having contractors as trigger pullers, but the pressure to minimize troop deployments means the ratio of contractors to troops may grow, he said.

Contractors are carrying a greater share of the load in Afghanistan these days as well. The U.S. plans to reduce the number of troops deployed there to fewer than 10,000 by year’s end but, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the number of contractors in Afghanistan ballooned to 108,000 last March at a time when 65,700 U.S. troops were there.

Johnson said vast numbers of contractors would likely remain in Afghanistan as troop levels declined.

The contractors provide services that local nationals wouldn’t be able to sustain in an impoverished, illiterate country, he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Josh Smith contributed to this report. Twitter: @SethRobson1

This article has been updated to include a comment from the public affairs director of U.S. Central Command.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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