Iraq, America and hired guns
Here is a summary of America’s future role in Iraq, in the words of President Barack Obama: “Our commitment is changing — from a military effort led by our soldiers to a diplomatic effort led by our diplomats.”
And here is a note of caution about that promised change: “Current planning for transitioning vital functions in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the Department of State is not adequate for effective coordination of billions of dollars in new contracting, and risks both financial waste and undermining U.S. policy objectives.”
Obama’s statement came in an Aug. 2 speech in which he confirmed that by the end of this month, America’s combat role would end. The 50,000 American soldiers remaining in Iraq (down from a peak of almost 170,000) would advise, train and support Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year, the last U.S. soldier would come home.
The warning on inadequate planning and the danger of wasting billions was sounded in a mid-July report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bi-partisan panel set up in 2008 in response to mounting concern over waste and inefficiencies on a monumental scale in dealing with ever-growing legions of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The commission’s report challenged the widespread perception that Iraq is on the road to normality after years of floundering thanks to the right military strategy and democratic processes including elections. “In stable, peaceful countries, (the Department of) State can count on the host nation to meet emergency needs for security or other services,” the report said.
“Iraq, however, is not stable and peaceful.” Instead, it is “turbulent”, a state of affairs that has consequences Obama did not mention in his end-of-combat-mission speech. The president’s civilian effort led by diplomats requires protection. Once the soldiers leave, that protection will have to come from thousands of newly contracted private military contractors.
It is the latest twist in the often perverse logic that has driven America’s war in Iraq — uniformed soldiers out, hired guns in. The number of private security contractors protecting American civilians is forecast to rise from 2,700 now to between 6,000 and 7,000.
“They will have contractors flying aircraft, driving armored vehicles, providing medevac (medical evacuations), dealing with explosive ordinance disposal,” Grant Green, a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, said in a radio interview after Obama’s speech. “You are going to have a lot more contractors doing things that many people will consider inherently governmental, or close to combat.”
“INHERENTLY GOVERNMENTAL” ROLES
The phrase “inherently governmental” is at the heart of the often contentious debate over the use of private contractors, some of whom have made headlines and given an entire industry a black image by using excessive force and antagonizing local populations with Wild West behavior. (Think Blackwater.)
Giving inherently governmental roles to private contractors can backfire in many ways. “If they are raising their own mini-army, they’ll also become more prominent targets,” says Robert Young Pelton, author of “Licensed to Kill”, a book on the rise of private military contractors. “Once the military leaves, violence is likely to rise.”
Ironically, America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has a track record of fierce opposition to war-time contractors. When she was running for president, against Obama, she was the first co-sponsor of a bill stipulating that “all personnel at any United States diplomatic or consular mission in Iraq are provided security services only by federal government personnel”.
Explaining her support for the bill, she said: “The time to show these contractors the door is long past due.”
The bill did not pass. Its intent clashes with reality on the ground — the world’s only superpower cannot fight its wars nor protect its diplomats in unstable countries without private contractors. Their number is vast — 95,000 in Iraq and 112,000 in Afghanistan according to the latest Pentagon count. This means that there are more civilian contractors than American troops both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Contrary to popular perceptions, most of the contractors are not armed and perform jobs that range from driving trucks and cooking food to issuing ID cards and cleaning toilets. In Iraq, the United States lists 11,029 armed private security contractors (11.5 percent of the total), just over 1,000 of them Americans, working for the Pentagon. (Those figures do not include contractors for the State Department or the CIA).
Is there a way to stuff the contractor genie back into the bottle? Probably not. The trend towards outsourcing roles previously performed by the military began with the end of the Cold War and the perceived “peace dividend” that prompted the armed forces to be shrunk by some 800,000. Contractors make up part of the gap.
There’s no scarcity of job opportunities for them. In Baghdad alone, guarding the fortress-like U.S. embassy, America’s biggest in the world, and ferrying diplomats to appointments in convoys of bullet-proof cars, requires a cast of hundreds.
Add security personnel for five planned new embassy outposts around the country — known as Enduring Presence Posts — and you have a small army of private soldiers. And that’s not counting at least a dozen other key security-related tasks the State Department will have to take over from the military.