The Great Debate

How Blackwater fought two wars — and State Department red tape

This is an excerpt from Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, by Erik Prince, published this month by Portfolio.

On March 27, 2009, President Obama stood at a podium in Room 450 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Over his right shoulder was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; over his left, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Today, I am announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the president said.

In the eight years since the United States had invaded Afghanistan, stability there had moved at a glacial pace, to the extent it moved forward at all. Taliban suicide bombings continued seemingly at will in the fledgling democracy. Insurgent aggression had prevented enough voter registration that the country’s landmark presidential elections, scheduled for May 2009, had to be pushed back three months. The United States had just come off its deadliest year of the war there, with 155 service members killed in 2008. In 2009, it only got worse.

As part of that “new strategy,” the Obama administration pledged to push an additional twenty-one thousand troops into Afghanistan, following that later in the year with a pledge for another twelve thousand, ultimately more than doubling the Bush administration’s force in the failing war effort. But President Obama included an additional component that he said differentiated this approach from that of his predecessor: “This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort,” he said. “To advance security, opportunity, and justice — not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces — we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers.” The “civilian surge,” as it came to be known, would send hundreds of people to the country under the State Department’s guidance — and someone had to keep them safe. As soon as I heard President Obama’s speech, I knew what that plan might mean for our newly rebranded firm, Xe, formerly Blackwater.

Since 2005, Blackwater had provided protection details for U. S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, Embassy Kabul personnel, visiting diplomats and congressional delegations, and USAID under Task Order 4 of the Worldwide Personal Protective Services (WPPS) II initiative. We had conducted 2,730 protection missions across Afghanistan in 2008 alone, earning all of the $174 million State paid us for the work. “During the entire time USTC [U. S. Training Center] has operated in Afghanistan, no one under USTC’s protection has been injured or killed, and there have been no incidents involving the use of deadly force,” a 2009 performance audit by State’s inspector general found. “The representatives [protected by the contractors] reported that USTC employees are professional, make them feel secure, and are respectful to both officials under chief of mission authority and their Afghan counterparts.”

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.

Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

By most counts, the death toll of U.S. soldiers in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 5,157 in the second week of September. Add at least 1,360 private contractors working for the U.S. and the number tops 6,500.

Contractor deaths and injuries (around 30,000 so far) are rarely reported but they highlight America’s steadily growing dependence on private enterprise. It’s a dependence some say has slid into incurable addiction. Contractor ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan have swollen to just under a quarter million. They outnumber American troops in Afghanistan and they almost match uniformed soldiers in Iraq.

The present ratio of about one contractor for every uniformed member of the U.S. armed forces is more than double that of every other major conflict in American history, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means the world’s only superpower cannot fight its war nor protect its civilian officials, diplomats and embassies without support from contractors.