While U.S. military forces have left Iraq and are winding down in Afghanistan, private military and security contractors still maintain a strong presence in the Middle East.

In Afghanistan, there are more contractors than U.S. troops according to the most recent quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command. There were approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in the region that covers Iraq, Afghanistan and 18 other countries from Egypt to Kazakhstan. In Afghanistan, there were 113,376 contractors and Iraq had 7,336, with 40,110 who were U.S. citizens, 50,560 local hires, and 46,231 from neither the U.S. nor the country where they were working.

Yet the report does not include contractors from the U.S. State Department, which is approximately 13,500, according to the CENTCOM report.

DOD data reveals that from FY2008 to FY2011, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan represented 52 percent of the total force, averaging 190,000 contractors to 175,000 uniformed personnel, said Moshe Schwartz, a defense expert at the Congressional Research Service, at a congressional hearing last month, as reported by Time.

Over the last five fiscal years, DOD obligations for contracts performed just in the Iraq and Afghanistan areas of operation ($132 billion) exceeded total contract obligations of any other U.S. federal agency.

“Contractors can provide significant operational benefits to DOD, including freeing up uniformed personnel to conduct combat operations; providing expertise in specialized fields, such as linguistics or weapon maintenance; and providing a surge capability, quickly delivering critical support capabilities tailored to specific military needs,” Schwartz said. “Because contractors can be hired when a particular need arises and let go when their services are no longer needed, in some circumstances, hiring contractors can be cheaper in the long run than maintaining a permanent in-house capability.”

However, the ineffective use of contractors can lead to the wasteful spending of billions of dollars and can undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. military, as many analysts believe happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.

Yet contracting service is not without its dangers. The most recent Department of Labor statistics reveal there were at least 121 civilian contractor deaths in the third quarter of 2012. The Defense Base Act Compensation blog says, “these numbers are not an accurate accounting of Contractor Casualties as many injuries and deaths are not reported as Defense Base Act Claims. Also, many of these injuries will become deaths due to the Defense Base Act Insurance Companies denial of medical benefits.” To date, a total of 90,680 claims have been filed since September 1, 2001.

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Chandler Harris is a freelance business and technology writer located in Silicon Valley. He has written for numerous publications including Entrepreneur, InformationWeek, San Jose Magazine, Government Technology, Public CIO, AllBusiness.com, U.S. Banker, Digital Communities Magazine, Converge Magazine, Surfer's Journal, Adventure Sports Magazine, ClearanceJobs.com, and the San Jose Business Journal. Chandler is also engaged in helping companies further their content marketing needs through content strategy, optimization and creation, as well as blogging and social media platforms. When he's not writing, Chandler enjoys his beach haunt of Santa Cruz where he rides roller coasters with his son, surfs and bikes across mountain ranges.