Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III...

Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 22. Credit: AP/MSgt. Donald R. Allen

On July 8, President Joe Biden remarked that the United States had "provided our Afghan partners with . . . all the tools, training and equipment of any modern military" and promised that the United States would "ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force." What Biden failed to mention, however, was that this "capacity" would be useless without the invisible army of civilian contractors who for two decades had provided logistical support to the U.S. and Afghan militaries.

While the U.S. government spent many years and millions of dollars training the Afghan military, American advisers focused training programs on the individuals pulling the trigger or flying the planes. The United States did not train Afghans in repairing high-tech equipment, instead using a civilian contractor network to maintain the Afghan military's equipment. Yet when the United States withdrew its forces in August, the contractors also fled.

This left the Afghan military with modern equipment but no soldiers or personnel capable of maintaining or repairing it — helping to precipitate the rapid collapse of Afghan forces and the Taliban takeover of the country. And this problem was, in many ways, centuries in the making. The United States has a long and complex history of relying on independent contractors to provide logistical support during wartime, and Afghanistan was only the latest campaign to suffer from this flawed system.

During the American Revolution and afterward, a logistical support structure operated by soldiers did not exist. A military unit typically bought supplies from the community where it camped. In the 1790s, when the United States moved its army to the frontier in the Ohio Valley to wage a campaign against Native Americans, there were too few settlers from whom to buy supplies. The Army instead purchased food, wagons and clothing through a contractor in Pennsylvania who promised to deliver the supplies.

But the contractor failed to deliver the purchased supplies on time and of suitable quality. This failure delayed Gen. Arthur St. Clair's campaign, allowing Native Americans to surround his force at the 1791 Battle of Wabash River, resulting in a staggering 90 percent casualty rate for the entire U.S. Army. The loss was the greatest defeat in U.S. Army history.

Yet the loss did not prevent the Army from relying upon independent contractors in subsequent conflicts. In fact, its supply and delivery system remained the same when the United States embarked on the Spanish-American War in Cuba more than a century later in 1898. Once again, the consequences were significant. Because of failures in delivery, quantity and quality of boots, food and weapons, more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers died of diseases that could have been mitigated by an efficient logistical system.

The situation repeated during World War I, finally prompting army strategists such as Gen. George Goethals to recognize the need to build a large logistical support tail operated by soldiers who could use and maintain the military's equipment.

The military perfected this innovation during World War II, as Army transportation units conducted missions such as the Red Ball Express that moved large amounts of war material around the world to the front lines. With modern communication and vehicles, the United States was able to overwhelm its enemies by having a better supplied military force, a force that operated all aspects of the battlefield logistical process. Being able to provide logistical support with its own personnel maximized U.S. military strength because it dramatically increased the odds that those undertaking combat missions would have the supplies and weaponry they needed.

Yet rather than sticking with this successful model, the United States reverted to trusting outside contractors to provide critical logistical support inside Vietnam in the late 1960s. The United States hired companies to build ports, military facilities, runways and roadways necessary to support a growing military presence. These companies hired Vietnamese citizens to complete the projects, with the hope that the economic benefit of good-paying jobs would endear the South Vietnamese citizenry to the U.S. presence, even though U.S. military personnel had the training to build these facilities. The purpose of using contractors was twofold: to keep the already high number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam from growing further and to enable them to focus on combat operations, while also infusing the South Vietnamese economy with additional money.

In the 1970s, the United States ended the draft, moving to an all-volunteer force where most of the logistical support capacity resided within the Army Reserve and National Guard. This change ensured that supporting the Army for extended periods would require deployment of hundreds of thousands of citizen soldiers from every community across the country. But after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, that proved politically unpalatable, encouraging the use of contractors once again.

Instead of deploying the full might of the U.S. military apparatus when the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001, therefore, civilian contractors provided not only the labor for construction projects, but also delivered logistical support and supplies — as they had in the earliest days of the army. Politicians understood that this practice meant fewer troops deploying and fewer difficult questions asked about the campaign.

Using private contractors allowed military units to prioritize aircraft pilots, infantry soldiers and military advisers over the personnel required to maintain the aircraft and weapons and provide life-sustaining supplies. To help build an Afghan force to counter the ever-present Taliban influence, the United States exported its support system to the Afghan military, even though this system did not match the needs of the conflict.

Yet as long as the U.S. military maintained a large presence in Afghanistan and paid the salaries of the contracted personnel, the contractors performed well. I experienced this firsthand while serving as an Army logistics planner in Afghanistan during 2013- 2014. Task Force Thunder, with which I worked, utilized more contracted personnel than Army aircraft maintenance personnel by a ratio of nearly two to one, in addition to civilian technical experts, and contractors who performed tasks that U.S. soldiers were already trained and paid to do such as cooking, laundry, transportation and construction.

The United States trained Afghan troops in fighting and using equipment but left critical maintenance to these contractors.

While this system hid the conflict, and its costs, from the view of many Americans, it proved damaging because it wasn't suitable for providing consistent support for an Afghan military that would experience heated, perhaps continuous combat for decades. During the 2010s, as political pressure grew at home to bring the mission in Afghanistan to a close, U.S. and NATO forces consolidated contractors to select locations that smaller numbers of coalition troops could secure. But this move, made with little consideration of Afghan needs, often left the Afghans and their equipment without the logistical support that they had relied upon.

As pressure from Taliban fighters upon Afghan forces increased beginning in 2019, the modern high-tech equipment the United States had given to the Afghan military became useless. Without the logistical backbone necessary to support the Afghan fighting force and its equipment, the Afghan army faced the same problems that plagued the U.S. military in its earliest days, with similar results.

This pattern reveals the peril of substituting contracted civilians for trained soldiers. The expectation and ability of U.S. soldiers to perform their task in austere environments while under the threat of enemy fire separates them from civilian contractors. Contractors are not expected to operate under the same danger as U.S. soldiers, making them unable to perform in circumstances as dicey as in Afghanistan, as Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in congressional testimony Sept. 28.

"When you pull contractors, you pull troops," Milley said. "That, I think, is one of the many contributing factors to the rapid collapse. So that is a big lesson." But it is a lesson the military needn't have learned anew in 2021; its own history has long showed that relying on contractors can leave U.S. troops in peril and threaten the efficacy of military missions with devastating results.

John DeLee is a graduate student in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi where he focuses upon Indian and foreign policy of the early United States.

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