In Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of contractors reached historically unprecedented levels – it has increased from the ratio of 1 contractor to 55 military personnel in Vietnam to 1:1 in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan it stands at 1:1½.

There have always been contractors following conflict but the nature of services and scale seen recently is game-changing stuff.    The failure to draw lines as to what private contracts can and cannot get involved in and a complete misunderstanding of the implications of using contractors is a crazy situation to have got into. The situation we are now in in Afghanistan of having armed contractors doing Government jobs is a step too far.

Maybe the question that needs asked and answered is “Does using contractors in a conflict zone make strategic sense – or have you just run out of troops on active service?”

Without doubt contractors can have a massive impact on the success or otherwise of things like counterinsurgency operations in a variety of ways. However they potentially reduce the legitimacy of a counterinsurgency effort and undermine the morality of the war effort. Contracts awarded locally can provide a massive injection of cash to a single individual in a region – and in my experience – often, very little is known about the opaque ownership that sit behind local corporations in hot-conflict zones.  So there is a place for private, armed contractors – but you need to use the resource carefully.

Currently, the US Commission on Wartime Contracting (www.wartimecontracting.gov) is examining a broad range of issues concerning wartime contracting and should present its final report in July.     Of particular interest will be the report’s views on “governmental” functions that should not be done by contractors. Even as the commission continues its work, the manpower requirements of the current conflicts mean that, for the short term, we are moving more and more contractors into war zones – and – more and more war zones are starting up.

Many nations have introduced armed contractors to conflict zones – until recently this was based on a pretty simple principle of using armed contractors to provide security and unarmed contractors to deliver services.    This has, as with much in conflict zones, suffered from mission-creep to the point where armed civilians are running operations that are clearly a Government responsibility in Afghanistan.   Potential problems arise because armed contractors are being injected into an arena that lacks the experience and resource to regulate them.

Armed contractors generally operate outside the experience and mandate of current international organisations, and they will continue to have unforeseen impacts long after the military draw-down and move on.   Someone needs to think about the policies, procedures and institutions to deal with the presence of armed contractors in conflict zones.   And – do it soon!

There is clearly a rational need:

“Let’s not forget,” she said, “an entire year of civilian assistance in Afghanistan costs Americans the same amount as 10 days of military operations.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday

But she did not explain how the civilian assistance program will continue as the military draws down; and currently, Afghanistan’s daunting security environment means that civilian aid workers must work with substantial security teams.