Obama may promise no 'boots on the ground' against ISIS but they are already there

Line between contractors and military personnel fades

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Remember the name Blackwater? The company may no longer exist as it once did but four former employees of the infamous government military contracting company just received one hell of a verdict. A Washington jury has convicted the four former security guards today of shooting more than 30 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, killing 17 in 2007.

Government contractors have historically worked with the U.S. government, often alongside military personnel. But the use of the hired men, also called mercenaries, has long been questioned and even more so today as contractors increasingly supplement official “boots on the ground.”

At the heart of today’s debate about what to do about ISIS is the question of whether to send in “boots on the ground.”  President Obama has publicly promised that no new ‘boots’  -- combat troops -- will be sent to Syria or Iraq.  His critics argue that ISIS can’t be vanquished without them.

But there’s some intel missing from the argument: There are already thousands of people on the ground in the Levant region - Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey and Syria - on the American payroll and more being recruited each day. They are called contractors or security advisors.

And while they may be Americans and they may have guns, they don’t qualify as ‘boots’ as the White House uses the term.

The ‘no boots on the ground’ promise is not exactly misleading, but it does have some caveats and some “known unknowns”.

How many contractors are there actually in and around Iraq and Syria? What roles are they really playing?  Are they doing what we think of as soldiers’ work?

The answer at this point is that we don’t really know. There’s a lot of gray area. Here’s what we do know.

According to a Pentagon document from January 2014, there were 78,136 “DoD Contractor Personnel” in Afghanistan, 3,234 in Iraq and 17,687 in other locations under the U.S. Central Command. About one-third of the contractors are U.S. citizens.

The number of regular U.S. military personnel in the area is significantly fewer. In May there were about 33,000 in Afghanistan and in September about 1,600 in Iraq. There are obviously no available numbers on intelligence agency personnel who may also be in the region.

For all contractors hired by the U.S., “It’s technically illegal to operate offensively or to take part in combat,” said Molly Dunigan, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “But lines blur quickly in between the fog of war.”

With the renewed threat in the region, the need for contractors has been surging.

According to the most recent count of contractors in Iraq supplied by the Pentagon, military contractors currently outnumber military personnel in Iraq 2 to 1. Contractors are doing much of what conventional “boots on the ground” used to do.

“Contractors are not included [in ‘boots on the ground’] because security contractors never left Iraq. They are often the constant presence,” said Douglas Ollivant at the New American Foundation.

“Practically, real world, the way the administration charted around that obstacle [of leaving Iraq] was contracting out everything the U.S. military had done to contractors working for the Department of State, which is proper and totally legal,” said said Rob Caruso, a former Naval special security officer with ties to the Pentagon and State Department. “Politically this allowed the White House to withdraw from Iraq without withdrawing completely.”

That is abundantly clear from to the want ads.

There are numerous job openings in Iraq listed on the sites of Triple Canopy, SOC and DynCorp, the top military contractor companies employed by the State Department. SOC currently lists 75 openings. Iraq isn’t the only Middle Eastern company with jobs. DynCorp also lists 160 openings in Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan as well as posts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates.

“The private security industry is ready to fill the gap, politically of a U.S. Armed force that is reluctant or unwilling to return en masse to Iraq after a decade of war,” Caruso said.

Many positions listed at the government contractor websites are labeled as ‘security’ roles. Legally, contractors are not supposed to be engaged in combat.

But according to a State Department spokesperson, military contractors and security contractors are now considered one in the same. In January this year all contractor roles in Iraq were transferred to the control of the State Department.

A spokesperson for the department says it does not divulge the number of contractors of military personnel it currently has in Iraq for security reasons, even though the Pentagon released its contractor count in January.

One job at Triple Canopy in Iraq calls for a Designated Defense Marksman. To apply you have to have graduated from U.S. Military Sniper School and will have to provide “tactical services in either a Protective Security Specialist or a Designated Defensive Marksman role to support principal and security detail members.”

Although the position includes potentially working with a Glock, M4, Shotgun, M240, M249 and M203, M24 or SR25 and the AK47—as outlined by the description offered on SOC’s site—these aren’t considered combat roles, officially. But “officially” doesn’t always transfer to the real world.

“This position is that of an armed contractor protecting personnel and probably vehicles moving around personnel as well,” said Caruso. “Dynamic security in a place like Iraq necessitates you to be prepared for combat, because if someone shoots at you they are fully aware you are with the United States or the global coalition and they know you mean business. That means they will shoot to kill, not maim. Bottom line is any contractor in Iraq has the potential of being engaged in combat even if they actively work to avoid those situations.”

The line between combat and non-combat can get blurry at times.

We know there are still around 1,600 U.S. military contractors in Iraq. We know that contractor firms are hiring more. But we don’t know what all of the contractor roles encompass now that we have embarked on Operation ‘Inherent Resolve.

We know that Obama has sent almost 500 more military personnel to Iraq, as he announced. Are there contractors in or near Syria? We don’t fully know what other types of contractors and intelligence groups are on the ground there, though there are no indications that contractors are being used intentionally to get around the “boots on the ground” promise.

Which gets us back to that phrase – “boots on the ground.”

The phrase is slang – there is no legal or formal definition.

“This is not a defined term of art. It’s become a short hand but an undefined short hand,” said Ollivant. “Outside of the definition there is clearly the exception of airpower, intelligence sharing, putting more advisors on the bases and planning and coordination.”

It’s a great phrase because there are ways around it. It’s a concept, not an official entity.

“It’s hard to see this term leaving the U.S. political lexicon,” said Ollivant. “Often it’s useful. It’s when you dig down deep to the ambiguities you find a gray area—the line is not binary it’s blurry.”

Rosa Kim contributed to this story

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