At first blush it seemed like a great idea and the only question it raises is why in the world no one in the administration suggested it. Of course its mention causes the reader to contemplate the not so savory role in Iraq of Blackwater, a firm founded and formerly headed by Erik Prince and that contemplation explains why it’s not as good an idea as it at first seemed. It also explains why Mr. Prince’s assertion that the October 22, 2014 verdict against four of his former employees was politically motivated is not believable.
A Congressional Report found Blackwater personnel were involved in almost 200 shootings in Iraq between 2005 and 2007. December 24, 2006, a drunken Blackwater guard shot one of the men guarding Iraq Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. February 4, 2007 an Iraqi journalist was “killed,”: February 7 three men guarding an Iraqi state television station were killed, September 9 five people near a government building were killed, September 12 five people were wounded in eastern Baghdad and, on September 16 seventeen Iraqis were killed in Nisour Square, shootings for which the verdicts of guilty against Blackwater employees were returned on October 22, 2014. In addition to having been accused of shooting many Iraqi civilians while in Iraq, the company earned more than $1 billion.
On February 25, 2010 Senator Carl Levin wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate whether Xe (Blackwater’s new name) made false or misleading statements when bidding for a contract in Afghanistan. He also wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates describing corrupt practices the company might have engaged in and requesting its activities be investigated. He said the Department of Defense “should review the transcript of this hearing and consider the deficiencies in Blackwater’s performance . . . before a decision is made to award the police training work [in Afghanistan] to Blackwater.” On June 21, 2010 it was reported Blackwater had been awarded a $120 million contract for providing “protective security services” at new U.S. consulates in Afghanistan.
A few days before the October verdict against the Blackwater defendants was returned, Mr. Prince came up with his good idea. He suggested that if the United States was unwilling to send in ground troops to combat the Islamic State, it should “let the private sector finish the job.” Although finishing the job seems like an optimistic description of what is required to defeat Islamic State, that does not take away from the appeal of Mr. Prince’s suggestion since it obviates the need for both U.S. and other foreign troops to get into what is sure to be a difficult task with a multitude of political problems.
Readers may wonder why the U.S. ever uses private contactors. It was all explained by then CIA Director, Leon Panetta, in a 2010 interview on ABC news. He said that in a war zone “we have needs for security. . . . Unfortunately, there are few companies that provide that kind of security. The State Department relies on them. . . . to a certain extent. So we bid out some of those contracts. They [Blackwater] outbid everyone else by about $26 million.” Private contractors are still an integral part of our efforts in Afghanistan. In an interview with Rachel Martin on NPR on October 26, 2014, one of the guests said that as recently as late summer the United States had 35,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan and 52,000 private contractors.
Mr. Prince is now chairman of Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group, that operates in Africa and provides “innovative, cost-effective, sustainable solutions to [clients] logistical, infrastructure, transport, and supply chain challenges. We are bold in our approach, agile in our response, and resourceful in our solutions.” Notwithstanding his former company’s record in Iraq, he still sees the benefit of private armies such as the one he used to run. In a column he wrote entitled “Thoughts on Countering ISIS” he said: “If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team. The professionals would be hired for their combat skills in armor, artillery, small unit tactics, special operations, logistics, and whatever else may be needed. . . . If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job.”
If it were not for memory, that might seem like a great idea. Memory of Blackwater’s conduct in Iraq, however, remains with us.
Christopher Brauchli is an attorney in Boulder, Colorado.