The good news for Blackwater fans is that things are not as bleak as might at first appear. Blackwater has more lives than the victims of its blunders. Earlier this year, I erroneously suggested that Blackwater might very soon be leaving Iraq since it had been told to leave by the Iraqi government. It turned out that the Iraq government lacked the authority to tell Blackwater what to do. Herewith a brief history.
A congressional report found that Blackwater guards were involved in almost 200 shootings in Iraq between 2005 and 2007. Included among them was a 2007-shooting spree that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Following that event, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki demanded that Blackwater leave the country. Believing (mistakenly) that he had the authority to determine whether a given contractor could work in Iraq or not he said: “The Iraqi government is responsible for its citizens, and it cannot be accepted for a security company to carry out a killing.” George Bush, who was accustomed to making all the arrangements for the Iraq war, ignored Mr. al-Maliki and extended Blackwater’s contract for another year. Bowed, but not defeated, Iraq did not give up trying to rid itself of the Blackwater scourge.
On January 1, 2009 the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraq took effect. That agreement provided that Iraq had the “primary right to exercise jurisdiction over United States contractors and United States contractor employees.” On January 28, 2009 Iraq said it would not issue Blackwater a license to continue operating in Iraq. Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry said: “Those companies that don’t have license, such as Blackwater, should leave Iraq immediately.” Alaa Al-Taia, an Interior Ministry official said: “There are many marks against this company, specifically that they have a bad history and have been involved in the killing of so many civilians.” Iraq probably thought that would be the end of Blackwater in Iraq. It was wrong.
The Obama administration said Blackwater is a State Department contractor and SOFA only gives Iraq jurisdiction over contractors “who are in Iraq to supply goods, services, and security in Iraq to or on behalf of the United States Forces . . . .” Expounding on that a State Department diplomatic security official said: “The purpose and mission of the Department of State’s private security contractors is limited to protection of US diplomats and diplomatic facilities only and is defensive in nature.” And so Blackwater continued its work providing “aviation services” in Iraq.
Blackwater worked throughout the spring and early summer and on July 29th its contract was extended by the Obama administration with an agreement to pay it an additional $20 million, bringing the total amount it received for “aviation services” to $187 million and its total for Iraq work to more than $1 billion. The July extension was to end on September 3 when its role was to be assumed by other defense contractors. On September 1 it was learned that its contract would be extended indefinitely to enable the handover of its work to the successor company to proceed more smoothly. When she learned of the extension, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois issued a statement saying: “Given the company’s history of massive abuses and misconduct, I believe it is inappropriate for the United States government to continue doing business with this firm.” One of these days Blackwater will be out of Iraq. It needn’t be depressed at the thought of leaving. That’s because it has Afghanistan at its disposal and Afghanistan is a gold mine for private contractors.
As of March 2009 there were approximately 70, 000 private contractors working in Afghanistan whereas there were only 48,000 U.S soldiers in that country. According to a Congressional Research Study, the ratio of contractors to soldiers is the highest it’s been in any conflict in the history of the United States. Among the private contractors is, not surprisingly, Blackwater. It provides diplomatic security for State Department people under the name “US Training Center” and does Defense Department work under the name “Paravant LLC. ” Paravant has continued the proud tradition established by Blackwater in Iraq of killing civilians. According to the Nation, one of Blackwater’s subsidiaries in Afghanistan is under investigation for the shooting of two Afghan civilians in May.
When Congresswoman Schakowsky learned of its contract in Afghanistan she wrote Secretaries Clinton and Gates urging them “not to award further contracts to Xe [Blackwater’s new name] and its affiliates and to review all existing contracts with this company.” As of this writing she had not received a response. In her concern she was joined by Sonali Kolhatkar, author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Commenting on Blackwater’s presence in Afghanistan she said: “If they build the same record of killing civilians in Afghanistan that they had in Iraq, it will cement the Afghan resistance even further against the U.S. occupation.” She’s right. Someone should let the President know.
CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.