ISSN 2330-717X

Private Security Companies Working For The U.S. Government


By Moshe Schwartz

Private security contractors can provide significant operational benefits to the U.S. government. Contractors can often be hired and deployed faster than a similarly skilled and sized military force.

Because security contractors can be hired and fired quickly as needed, using contractors can allow federal agencies to adapt more easily to changing environments around the world. In contrast, adapting the military force structure or training significant numbers of Department of State civilian personnel can take months or years.

Security contractors also serve as a force multiplier for the military, freeing up uniformed personnel to perform combat missions or providing the State Department with the necessary security capabilities when State’s civilian security force is stretched thin. In some cases, security contractors may possess unique skills that the government workforce lacks. For example, local nationals hired by U.S. government agencies working overseas may provide critical knowledge of the terrain, culture, and language of the region. Using PSCs can also save the government money. Contractors can be hired when a particular security need arises and be let go when their services are no longer needed. Hiring contractors only as needed can be cheaper in the long run than maintaining a permanent in-house capability. According to government officials, both DOD and the Department of State would be unable to execute their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq without the support of PSCs.25

Department of Defense PSCs

DOD did not begin to gather data on private security contractors until the second half of 2007. As a result, the following CRS analysis includes the past two and a half years, ending December 30, 2010. In addition, a number of analysts have raised questions about the reliability of the data gathered. In October 2010, GAO reported that DOD’s quarterly contractor reports represent only a rough approximation of the number of contractors and therefore should not be relied upon for precise analysis.26 DOD officials have acknowledged these shortcomings; the census for the third quarter of FY2009 notes that the recorded 19% increase in armed security contractors over the previous quarter is partly a result of “continued improved ability to account for subcontractors who are providing security services.”

As of December 31, 2010, there were more than 27,000 private security contractor personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, representing 17% of DOD’s total contractor workforce in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since December 2009, the number of PSC personnel in Afghanistan has exceeded the number in Iraq (see Figure 1 – click on image to enlarge).


Number of Contractors

Since December 2009, the number of PSC personnel in Afghanistan has exceeded the number of PSC personnel in Iraq. According to DOD, as of December 2010, there were 18,919 private security contractor personnel in Afghanistan. This represents the highest recorded number of private security contractor personnel used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States. Local nationals made up 95% of all security personnel (see Table 1 – click on image to enlarge).

According to DOD, for the 15 month period of September 2007 to December 2008, the number of security contractors increased by 16%, from 3,152 to 3,689. However, from December 2008 to December 2010, the number of security contractors increased from 3,689 to 18,919, an increase of over 400% (see Figure 2). DOD has attributed the increase in contractors to increased operational tempo and efforts to stabilize and develop new and existing forward operating bases.27

Security Contractors Compared to Total Contractor and Troop Levels

From December 2008 to December 2010, the number of U.S. troops and DOD contractor personnel in Afghanistan increased. However, the number of security contractors increased at a much faster rate (413%) than total contractors (22%) or troop levels (200%). As of December 2010, security contractor personnel made up 22% of all DOD contractors and was equal to 20% of the size of total U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan (see Figure 3 – click on image to enlarge).

Casualty Rates of PSC Personnel vs. Uniformed Personnel

According to DOD, from June 2009 to November 2010, 319 private security contractor personnel working for DOD have been killed in action in Afghanistan, compared to 626 U.S. troops killed in action over the same period.28 Adjusting for the difference in the number of PSC personnel compared to troops, a PSC employee working for DOD in Afghanistan is 2.75 times more likely to be killed in action than uniformed personnel (see Figure 4 – click on image to enlarge).

More contractor security personnel were killed in action providing mobile security (233 people or 73% of fatalities) than static security, even though those providing mobile security are only 25%- 30% of the total PSC workforce.29

Nationality of Contractors

According to DOD, since September 2007, local nationals have made up 90% or more of all security contractors in Afghanistan (see Figure 5 – click on image to enlarge).


Number of Security Contractors

According to DOD, as of December 2010, there were 8,327 private security contractor personnel working for DOD in Iraq – the fewest number of such personnel since June, 2008. Local nationals made up just 1% of all security personnel, compared to 95% in Afghanistan (see Table 2 – click on image to enlarge).

According to DOD, from September 2007 to June 2009, the number of security contractors increased from 6,068 to a high of 15,279, an increase of 152%. However, from June 2009 to December 2010, the number of security contractors has decreased by 6,952, or 46% (see Figure 6 – click on image to enlarge). DOD officials anticipate that the number of security contractors in Iraq will continue to decrease, much as the overall number of contractors and troops in Iraq is decreasing.

As the military continues to withdraw from Iraq, the Department of State will assume greater responsibility for providing security and will have to hire more PSC personnel. It is estimated that the number of security contractors working for State will increase to approximately 5,500, with some 1,500 providing personal security for diplomatic movements and an additional 4,000 providing perimeter security. 30

Despite the Department of State’s increasing reliance on PSCs, the overall number of PSC personnel working in Iraq for the United States is not increasing. As stated above, the number of PSC personnel working for DOD has declined by almost 7,000—more than offsetting the estimated additional 3,000 PSC personnel that the Department of State anticipates having to hire as a result of the transition from DOD to State.

Security Contractors Compared to Total Contractor and Troop Levels

From December 2007 to December 2010, the number of troops in Iraq dropped from 165,700 to 47,300, a decrease of 72%. The total number of contractors dropped from a high of 163,000 in September 2008 to 71,142 in December 2010, a decrease of 56%. The number of PSCs peaked at 15,279 in June 2009. As reflected in Figure 7 (click to enlarge), even as overall contractor and troop levels were generally falling, the number of PSCs was increasing. This trend was reversed in June 2009 and as discussed above, the number of PSC personnel working for DOD in Iraq has since dropped by 46%. PSC personnel represent approximately 12% of all DOD contractors in Iraq.

Casualty Rates of PSC Personnel vs. Uniformed Personnel

According to DOD, from September 2009 to November 2010, four private security contractor personnel working for DOD were killed in action in Iraq, compared to 26 U.S. troops killed over the same period.31 Adjusting for the difference in the number of PSC personnel compared to troops, a PSC employee working for DOD in Iraq was 1.2 times more likely to be killed in action than uniformed personnel. However, the relatively fewer number of deaths in Iraq makes this analysis less mathematically significant than in Afghanistan.

Nationality of Contractors

Contracting local nationals is an important element in DOD’s counterinsurgency strategy. In January 2009, General Raymond Odierno issued a memorandum stating “employment of Iraqis not only saves money but it also strengthens the Iraqi economy and helps eliminate the root causes of the insurgency—poverty and lack of economic opportunity.”32 The memorandum set forth a goal of increasing the percentage of local national contractors. From January 2009 to December 2010, the percentage of local nationals serving as security contractors has decreased from 13% to 1% (see Figure 8 – click to enlarge). As of December 2010, there were 113 local national PSC personnel compared to more than 7,400 third-country nationals personnel. In contrast to Iraq, where 1% of security contractor personnel are local nationals, in Afghanistan, 95% are local nationals (see Table 1 and Figure 2 – click to enlarge).

Can the Use of PSCs Undermine US Efforts?

According to the Army Field Manual on counterinsurgency, one of the fundamental tenets of counterinsurgency operations—such as those undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq—is to establish and maintain security while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Abuses by security forces, according to the manual, can be a major escalating factor in insurgencies.33

Abuses committed by contractors, including contractors working for other U.S. agencies, can also strengthen anti-American insurgents.34 There have been published reports of local nationals being abused and mistreated by DOD contractors in such incidents as the summary shooting by a private security contractor of an Afghan who was handcuffed,35 the shooting of Iraqi civilians,36 and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.37 (It should be noted that there have also been reports of military personnel abusing and otherwise mistreating local nationals, including the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib prison.38 CRS has not conducted an analysis to determine whether the incidence of abuses is higher among contractors than it is among military personnel.)

Many of the high-profile reports of PSCs shooting local nationals or otherwise acting irresponsibly were committed by contractors working for the Department of State. Some of these incidents include the reported shooting of Iraqi civilians by Triple Canopy employees,39 the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in Nisoor Square by Blackwater employees,40 and the recent controversy over the behavior of security contractors from Armour Group who were hired to protect the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan.41 Of the six incidents listed above, five were committed by U.S. companies and U.S. nationals.

Incidents of abuse still occur in Afghanistan. From 2006 to 2009, private security contractors escorting supply convoys to coalition bases have been blamed for killing and wounding more than 30 innocent civilians in Afghanistan’s Maywand district alone, leading to at least one confrontation with U.S. forces.42 And in May 2010, U.S. and Afghan officials reportedly stated that local Afghan security contractors protecting NATO supply convoys in Kandahar “regularly fire wildly into villages they pass, hindering coalition efforts to build local support.”43 One officer from a Stryker brigade deployed in Afghanistan was quoted as saying that these contractors “tend to squeeze the trigger first and ask questions later.”44 And unlike in Iraq, where a series of highprofile incidents involved U.S. security personnel, in Afghanistan, many of the guards causing the problems are Afghans.

Recent U.S. government investigations have also found that U.S. money for contracts in Afghanistan have been used to pay the Taliban in exchange for security. The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Agency for International Development found that “millions of dollars in American taxpayer funds may have been paid to Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan to provide security for a U.S. development project.”45 The Majority report issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs found similar evidence that U.S. contractors made protection payments to local warlords to secure safe passage of supply convoys. The investigation further found that protection payments may even have gone to the Taliban.46 And the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report that found evidence of U.S.-funded prime contractors supporting the Taliban and subcontracting to warlords.47

According to many analysts, these events have in fact undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.48 An Iraqi Interior Ministry official, discussing the behavior of private security contractors, said “Iraqis do not know them as Blackwater or other PSCs but only as Americans.”49 One senior military officer reportedly stated that the actions of armed PSCs “can turn an entire district against us.”50 Some analysts also contend that PSCs can be a direct threat to the legitimacy of the local government. These analysts argue that if counterinsurgency operations are a competition for legitimacy but the government is allowing armed contractors to operate in the country without the contractors being held accountable for their actions, then the government itself can be viewed as not legitimate in the eyes of the local population. These analysts point to the recent court decision dismissing the case against former Blackwater employees as a case in point where the legitimacy of the U.S. and local government is being undermined by the actions of PSCs.51

The extent to which the behavior of private security contractors in Afghanistan has hurt coalition efforts in Afghanistan was discussed by Major General Nick Carter (United Kingdom), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan Regional Command South, who stated that the “culture of impunity” that exists around PSCs are a serious problem that needs to be dealt with and that this culture is to some degree “our own doing.”52

The perception that DOD and other government agencies are deploying PSCs who abuse and mistreat people can fan anti-American sentiment and strengthen insurgents, even when no abuses are taking place. There have been reports of an anti-American campaign in Pakistan, where stories are circulating of U.S. private security contractors running amok and armed Americans harassing and terrifying residents.53 U.S. efforts can also be undermined when DOD has ties with groups that kill civilians or government officials, even if the perpetrators were not working for DOD when the killings took place. In June 2009, the provincial police chief of Kandahar, Afghanistan, was killed by a group that worked as a private security contractor for DOD.54

Pointing to the example of the killing of the police chief in Kandahar, some analysts have also argued that the large-scale use of armed contractors in certain countries can undermine the stability of fragile governments. In a paper for the U.S. Army War College, Colonel Bobby A. Towery wrote

After our departure, the potential exists for us to leave Iraq with paramilitary organizations that are well organized, financed, trained and equipped. These organizations are primarily motivated by profit and only answer to an Iraqi government official with limited to no control over their actions. These factors potentially make private security contractors a destabilizing influence in the future of Iraq.

These and other considerations have led a number of analysts, government officials, and military officers to call for limiting the use of PSCs in combat and stability operations. Some analysts have called for completely barring the use of PSCs during such operations. The executive summary for the U.S. Naval Academy’s 9th Annual McCain Conference on Ethics and Military Leadership takes this position:

We therefore conclude that contractors should not be deployed as security guards, sentries, or even prison guards within combat areas. PSCs should be restricted to appropriate support functions and those geographic areas where the rule of law prevails. In irregular warfare (IW) environments, where civilian cooperation is crucial, this restriction is both ethically and strategically necessary.55

Others have suggested a more targeted approach, such as limiting DOD’s use of PSCs to providing only static security in combat areas, leaving all convoy and personal security details to the military.56

Analysts calling for restrictions on the use of PSCs generally believe that contractors are more likely to commit abuses or other atrocities than military personnel. Some analysts believe that the culture of the military, which is focused on mission success and not on profit or contractual considerations, makes it less likely that uniformed personnel will behave inappropriately. Some analysts and DOD officials believe that lax contractor oversight has significantly contributed to contractor abuses.57 This sentiment was echoed by then Senator Barack Obama, who stated “we cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors.”58 According to these analysts, improved oversight and accountability could mitigate the negative effects that the use of PSCs and other contractors has had on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and could potentially bring the standard of behavior of PSCs on par with that of uniformed personnel.

Moshe Schwartz
Specialist in Defense Acquisition

This article is an edited shorter portion of February 21, 2011 Congressional Research Service Report, “The Department of Defense’s Use of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background, Analysis, and Options for Congress”

25 CRS Report MM70119, Private Security Contractors: Possible Legislative Approaches. Online Video. DVD., coordinated by Kennon H. Nakamura (archived).
26 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Iraq and Afghanistan: DOD, State and USAID Face Continued Challenges in Tracking Contracts, Assistance Instruments, and Associated Personnel, GAO-11-1, October 1, 2010, p. 18; See also, U.S. Government Accountability Office, Contingency Contracting: DOD, State, and USAID Contracts and Contractor Personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, GAO-09-19, October 1, 2008, p. 6.
27 CENTCOM Quarterly Contractor Census reports.
28 Excludes deaths resulting from road traffic accidents or other unrelated causes. PSC data provided by DOD to CRS in January, 2011. Troop data can be found at
29 Based on DOD documents and discussions with DOD officials. Assuming that mobile security represents 30% of all PSC employees, a PSC employee providing mobile security to services to DOD in Afghanistan is almost eight times more likely to be killed in action than uniformed personnel.
30 Based on estimates provided by the Department of State to CRS.
31 Excludes deaths resulting from road traffic accidents or other unrelated causes. PSC data provided by DOD to CRS in January, 2011. Troop data can be found at
32 General Raymond T. Odierno, Memorandum, Increased Employment of Iraq Citizens Through Command Contracts, Multi-National Force-Iraq, January 31, 2009.
33 Department of Defense, Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, December 2006, p. 1-9.
34 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Operational Contract Support, Joint Publication 4-10, October 17, 2008, pp. IV-20; See also Counterinsurgency, p. 1-9. Operational Contract Support recognizes that local nationals may not always draw a distinction between government contractors and the U.S. military.
35 Bruce Alpert, “Killing in Afghanistan hits very close to home; N.O. man is accused of cold-blooded crime,” Times-Picayune, December 17, 2008, p. 1.
36 Mark Townsend, “National: Iraq victims sue UK security firm: Guards employed by Hampshire-based company are,” The Observer, January 11, 2009, p. 14.
37 Department of Defense, Investigation of Intelligence Activities at Abu Ghraib, August 23, 2004. See The contractors involved in the Abu Ghraib incident are generally considered not to have been private security contractors.
38 Department of Defense, Investigation of Intelligence Activities at Abu Ghraib, August 23, 2004. See
39 Tom Jackman, “Security Contractor Cleared in Two Firings,” Washington Post, August 2, 2007. p. A-15.
40 Blackwater has since changed its name to Xe.
41 Tony Harris, Jill Dougherty, and Chris Lawrence, et al., “U.S. Embassy Hazing & Humiliation,” CNN: CNN Newsroom, September 2009. See also, Letter from Project on Government Oversight to The Honorable Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, September 1, 2009,
42 Sean Taylor, “Trigger-Happy Security Complicates Convoys,” Army Times, December 1, 2009.
43 Sebastian Abbot, “Private Guards Anger U.S., Afghans,” Associated Press, May 1, 2010.
44 Ibid.
45 Paul Richter, “Audit: U.S. Funds Went to Taliban, Subcontractors on an Afghan project may have paid more than $5 million for security,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010.
46 Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “Warlord Inc.: Extortion and Corrution Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan,” June 22, 2010.
47 Senate Armed Services Committee, “Inquiry into the Role and Oversight of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan,” October 7, 2010.
48 See David Zucchino, “Private security forces unnerve Afghans,” Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2009.
49 Steve Fainaru, “Where Military Rules Don’t Apply; Blackwater’s Security Force in Iraq Given Wide Latitude by State Department,” Washington Post, September 20, 2007, Pg. A1.
50 Anna Mulrine and Keith Whitelaw, “Private Security Contractors Face Incoming Political Fire,” U.S. News & World
Report, October 15, 2007.
51 Charlie Savage, “U.S. Judge throws out case against Blackwater; Indictment for shootings in Iraq tainted by misuse
of defendents’ statements,” International Herald Tribune , January 2, 2010, p. 1; Editorial, “Stain on US justice,” Arab
news, January 2, 2010.
52 “Major General Nick Carter (U.K. Royal Army) Holds a Defense Department News Briefing Via Teleconference
From Afghanistan,” CQ Transcript, May 26, 2010.
53 Saeed Shah, “Anti-Americanism rises in Pakistan over U.S. motives,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 7, 2009.
See also “Article flays Pakistan for not taking “serious note” of US firm’s activities,” The British Broadcasting
Corporation, September 25, 2009, 03:25, BBC Monitoring South Asia.
54 Noor Khan, “Afghan minister calls for disbanding of private security forces after killing of police chief,” Associated
Press, June 30, 2009, AP Newswire.
55 Vice Admiral Jeff Fowler, Superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy, Executive Summary for the U.S. Naval Academy’s
9th Annual McCain Conference on Ethics and Military Leadership , Annapolis, MD, April 23, 2009, Last visited August 21, 2009. See also Colonel Bobby A. Towery,
“Phasing Out Private Security Contractors in Iraq”, (master’s thesis, U.S. Army War College, 2006), p. 12.
56 Col. David A. Wallace, “The Future Use of Corporate Warriors With the U.S. Armed Forces: Legal, Policy, and
Practical Considerations and Concerns,” Defense Acquisition Review Journal, vol. 16, no. 2 (July 2009), p. 136.
57 According to an Army investigative report, a lack of good contractor oversight at Abu Ghraib prison contributed to
fostering a permissive environment in which prisoner abuses took place at the hands of contractors. Department of
Defense, Investigation of Intelligence Activities at Abu Ghraib, August 23, 2004, p. 52. The report found “Proper
oversight did not occur at Abu Ghraib due to a lack of training and inadequate contract management … [T]his lack of
monitoring was a contributing factor to the problems that were experienced with the performance of the contractors at
Abu Ghraib.” See
58 Hauser, C., New Rules for Contractors are Urged by 2 Democrats, the New York Times, October 4, 2007.

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