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Blackwater and Private Military Firms in Iraq
The Good, the Bad and the Iraqi
by WAJAHAT ALI


"Privatize first, ask questions later."

William D Hartung

"I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world"

Gary Jackson, President of Blackwater, hired to protect Lt. Gen Paul Bremer, head of the CPA.

"For most of the world’s governments, though, there are simply no applicable laws that regulate and define the jurisdictions under which PMF’s (Private Military Firms) operate."

P.W. Singer

"It’s more cost effective to outsource some of those activities, those functions, outside of the military. I didn’t do the numbers, but I’m telling you, it’s cheaper." Paul Cerjan, VP of Worldwide military affairs, Halliburton/KBR

"Isn’t it pretty to think so?"

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

The black heart of outsourcing core, military functions to Private Military Firms (PMF’s) revealed itself yet again this week with the most recent (of many) Blackwater scandals. Blackwater, the North Carolina based private security firm with 1,000 employees currently deployed in Iraq, first came to prominence as the contracted, personal bodyguards of former Coalition Provisional Authority head Lt. General Paul Bremer. Unfortunately, Blackwater’s international reputation has blossomed due to its notoriety warranted by irresponsible and violent acts in Iraq. These incidents, which seem like a recurring, annual trend, emphasize the crucial, prescient need to closely examine PMF’s roles, responsibilities, and most importantly–legal accountability–in the "War on Terror."

Recently, Iraqi investigations revealed Blackwater employees were responsible for nearly 6 violent episodes this year resulting in 10 deaths and countless wounded civilians. However, on September 27, The State Department, for the first time, publicly stated Blackwater’s security personnel has actually been involved in 56 shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq so far this year alone.

Furthermore, federal prosecutors are currently investigating Blackwater employees for illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq and selling them on the black market, which have, ironically, ended up in the hands of organizations that the United States government has officially deemed as "terrorist." Surely, the U.S. government has reprimanded this organization, cancelled their contracts, and held them accountable for such illegal and negligent acts. Right? Wrong. Reaffirming their undying loyalty to private military firms, The White House, through its cabinet member of choice Condoleezza Rice, said they have, yet again, ordered a review of the government’s handling of private contractors in Iraq, but added "We (the government) havereceived the protection of Blackwater for number of years now, and they have lost their own people in protecting our own people (high ranking U.S. diplomats and ambassadors) – and that needs to be said." What also should be said is that Blackwater is just one of many private military firms whose illegal conduct has gone largely unnoticed and unpunished under either U.S. or international law.

We must recall The Abu Ghraib Torture Scandal that rocked the headlines in the summer of 2004. Aside from permanently disgracing the United States military reputation in the Middle East, this harrowing episode introduced the world to the catastrophic consequences and weaknesses of privatizing certain military functions to private contractors. The Taguba Report, prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba to investigate the scandal, highlighted private military firms CACI and Titan as being "directly or indirectly responsible" for the abuses, since they employed 30 or so interrogators who made up more than half of the Abu Ghraib interrogation team. Torrin Nelson, former employee of CACI working as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, illustrated a grave problem with outsourcing core military functions to the private market when he said, "The problem with outsourcing intelligence work is the limit of oversight and control by the military administrators over the independent contractors." Other egregious examples include the complete exoneration of private military firm DynCorp (hired as Bosnia’s police force), whose employees were involved in a Bosnian rape and child prostitution scandal. None of the men, including DynCorp’s site supervisor who videotaped himself raping two young women, were ever legally prosecuted, instead they were "sprinting out of the country, away from local authorities." How convenient.

The lack of responsibility and accountability for private military actors are major areas of concern, since PMF’s are generally subject only to the laws of the market. Specifically, a public military actor, such as an Army Marine, would be court marshaled, dishonorably discharged, or arrested for partaking in illegal activities contrary to domestic and international law. Certain manners of control and regulation would ensure this type of swift punishment and accountability, such as internal checks and balances, domestic laws regulating military force, public opinion, parliamentary scrutiny, and numerous international laws. However, no agency, legislative oversight, or legal recourse truly affects the PMF’s, such as Blackwater, aside from the checks and balances of it shareholders, whose decision to punish or appraise depends primarily on profit incentives. In fact, the army concluded in 2002 that it lacked a "specific identified force structure" and "detailed policy on how to establish contractor management oversight within an area of responsibility."

Furthermore, there exists a lack of proper monitoring of PMF contracts and employment activities, such as those witnessed at Abu Ghraib. Specifically, both private and public sectors agree on proper monitoring by public authorities, but that would raise contract costs, blur the chain of command, and diffuse responsibility. Most PMF contracts, such as those in Iraq, take place in the "fog of war"–a highly complex and uncertain war time environment, making routine monitoring extremely difficult For example, in the detention facility at Abu Ghraib, the civilian contractors "wandered about with too much unsupervised free access in the detainee area" according to the Taguba Report, which also remarked they (the civilian contractors) "do not appear to be properly supervised." Also, PMF contract terms are often unspecific, because they lack outside standards of achievement and established measures of effectiveness. The result? The principal defers to the client for progress reports, instead of obtaining up to minute, accurate unbiased evaluations from neutral, professional, public monitoring groups.

The lack of accurate monitoring and oversight has also led to scandals of PMF’s overcharging for un-provided services, thereby undermining one of the main motives for privatization: cost savings. Particularly, P.W. Singer urges clients, such as the United States government, to notice that a firm’s primary aim, that of profit maximization, cannot always perfectly align itself perfectly with their client’s interests. The phenomenon is known as "improper contracting", illustrated by Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, which operates over 60 sites in Iraq as the military’s main supplier due to $12 billion worth of service contracts. To be fair, any industry contains actors willing to engage in unscrupulous practices, such as overcharging, hiding failures, not performing to peak capacity, and skirting corners to maximize profit and minimize costs. Improper contracting concerns have plagued two companies in particular; Halliburton and the provider firm Custer Battles, who, according to experts, operate "with poor oversight."

The recent debacle by Blackwater contractors and Halliburton truckers elucidates concern involving the relationship between civilian contractors and military actors, and whether this relationship truly fosters efficient end results. This interdependence of civilian and military actors might result in a lopsided over-dependence. Specifically, if the government places core functions and strategic plans in the hands of a private firm, then the government succumbs to the economic term "ex-post holdup" meaning it becomes "too dependent" and "at the mercy" of the private agent. An analogy could be drawn between the sadist who hovers the carrot on the stick in front of the starving prisoner, knowing full well the prisoner will oblige any indulgence to obtain the precious resource. In Iraq, after a 19-truck Haliburton KBR convoy was ambushed, with six drivers killed, several KBR truckers absolutely refused to drive until assured of improved security. In fact, hundreds of drivers left their jobs and the country. As a result, the United States military, dependent on Halliburton trucks and truckers for supplies, was left with "dwindling stores of ammunition, fuel, and water." Unlike public military actors, private actors, such as the Halliburton truckers, can break their contracts and leave without fear of court martial or prosecution.

This "abandonment with immunity" not only threatens reliability and confidence in private actors, but also undermines the safety of American soldiers and the integrity of military operations. Barry Yeoman articulates the problem clearly when he states:

Think about it: a private military firm might decide to pack its own bags for any number of reasons, leaving American soldiers and equipment vulnerable to enemy attack. If the military really can’t fight wars without contractors, it must at least come up with ironclad policies on what do if the private soldiersleave American forces in the lurch."

The competing interests and functions of civilian contractors and military personnel lead to deteriorating communication and harmony between the two sectors. Open streams of communication can help efficiency by allowing private and public sector actors to know of each other’s functional capabilities, resource strength, and locations, especially in hot zones According to Steven Schooner, an expert in government contracting, since the contractors are outside the military command structure there is a lack of coordination on the battlefield, and furthermore "contractors and the military don’t communicate in the same networks. They don’t get the same intelligence information." Col. Jill Morgenthaler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military command headquarters in Baghdad, agreed, "There is no formal arrangement for intelligence sharing" however "ad hoc relationships are in place"

Unfortunately, the tragic results of inefficient communication between private and public actors are exemplified by the killings of 4 Blackwater personnel two years ago. These private contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah while escorting three empty trucks on their way to pick up kitchen equipment. The State Department’s report states, "Blackwater took on the Fallujah mission before its contract officially began, and after being warned by its predecessor that it was too dangerous. It sent its team on the mission without properly armored vehicles and machine guns. And it cut the standard mission team by two members, thus depriving them of rear gunners." This tragic incident catalyzed a U.S. military assault on Fallujah leaving 36 U.S. soldiers, 200 Sunni insurgents and 600 Iraqi civilians dead. The United States Oversight Committee on Oversight and Government Reform officially stated that Blackwater "delayed and impeded" a congressional probe of this tragic and unnecessary debacle .

The images of the Iraqi mob burning the Blackwater car and hanging their bodies from the bridge gave civilian contractors chills, specifically the family members of the slain men who filed wrongful death suits against Blackwater for failing to supply adequate guards as promised in the contract. Surprisingly, Marine Col. John Toolan was in command of the region during the tragic episode and had no knowledge of the contractors’ presence in the area due to lack of communication and information sharing. Furthermore, their deaths compelled him to set aside a core military strategy, quelling the insurgency, because he was forced to invade Fallujah and find the murderers. In hindsight, one can only assume an alternative result if there was a formal, consistent stream of communication between civilian contractors, such as Blackwater, and military personnel, such as Col John Toolan. Perhaps lives would have been saved and crucial military functions would have proceeded as planned. However, the lack of communication highlighted problems between the two sets of actors both supposedly working towards a unified goal, but harming their respective progress and interests instead.

So, here we are again in 2007 with another public, international PR crisis involving American PMF’s in Iraq threatening our already maligned reputation and endangering the sovereignty and efficiency of the United States military. History has taught us repeatedly that strict accountability, professional, independent monitoring systems of PMF’s, and swift, public legal recourse for unlawful conduct would not only curb future abuses, but also show the world the United States punishes those contractors who act recklessly and with impunity. History has also taught us that war is profitable and the clarity of accountability and legal ethics is generally always lost in this "fog of war." And as of September 2007, Blackwater continues its convoy movements on the streets of Iraq. The black heart of American private military firms in Iraq has a strong, healthy pulse indeed.

WAJAHAT ALI is a poet, playwrite and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: wajahatmali@gmail.com