Walter Pincus reads through the conference report of the Defense appropriations bill and learns that the Pentagon thinks it can save $44,000 for every contractor it replaces with an actual department employee. Hooray! But the anticipated savings come from those ousted contractors who provide services like “supervising other contractors who provide guard services at forward operating bases, to providing oversight of aid projects overseas.” In other words: not your Blackwaters and your Triple Canopies and your DynCorps and your Armor Groups. Not your private military companies. Not your mercenaries.

This distinction is… well, I don’t really know how to quantify this, but I feel as if it’s often lost. When I was at TPM covering this stuff, I would occasionally report some story like Number Of Contractors Rises In Iraq War. And I’d get a bunch of emails that were like We have more mercenaries in Iraq than soldiers and marines! And I would be like, well, we don’t really know that, but probably not — that’s an aggregate total of all contractors, from cooks and travel schedulers and shift supervisors to stone-cold shooters. And unfortunately the Pentagon doesn’t typically break down for you which is which, and I’ve got calluses on my fingertips from all the FOIAs I’ve submitted that have been ignored. Don’t get me wrong — it rubs me the wrong way from a goo-goo perspective to have a ton of support jobs contracted out, but from a waste, fraud and abuse perspective. Contracting out security operations is a totally different and vastly more problematic enterprise.

(By the way, the most recent — and helpful! — Pentagon figures, from June, hold that there are a bit more than 13,000 security contract personnel in Afghanistan, representing about 11 percent of total contractors in that country. That is bound to rise with the “extended surge” but I don’t know by how much.)

Meanwhile, I’m just catching up — holiday reading — on this John Nagl/Richard Fontaine CNAS paper on contractors, and I was surprised to see it decline to deal significantly with private military companies operating in warzones. Maybe that’s because the authors tell us that the big CNAS contractor study is coming in June. But it still surprised me to read that Nagl and Fontaine dealt with the pretty big problem of coordinating private-security operations with U.S. military objectives — which those companies are under no obligation to serve — by writing, “However, as current and former DOD officials point out, not a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan has failed because of contractor non-performance.” This is the standard? As I said, the paper is just preliminary, so perhaps CNAS will go into a guide for deconflicting and harmonizing security contractor objectives with military/diplomatic/development objectives in June.