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March 12, 2008

The Real Skinny on PMCs
Posted by Michael Cohen

Earlier I referenced Michael Walzer's most recent article in the New Republic about "mercenaries." Then I praised it . . . now, not so much.  Consider this opening paragraph:

There can't be an effective Iraqi state until these militias are disarmed or incorporated into the Iraqi army and subjected to its chain of command. It is exceedingly strange, then, that we have brought private militias of our own into Iraq.

It would indeed be strange . . . if the equivalency Walzer is hinting at here is accurate. It's not. The notion that the United States has brought private militias into Iraq is simply incorrect. It's not as if Blackwater or any contractor operates on their own - indeed they are contracted by the US government to be in Iraq If Walzer wants to point fingers at their lack of oversight of private contractors - and he does at great length -- I'll be happy to jump on the bandwagon. But to tar them all with the Blackwater stain, aka, gunhappy Rambos doesn't provide a full measure of how contractors are used in national security operations.

But, if you really want to see how stunningly off-base Walzer really is, consider this little nugget of info buried in yesterday's Washington Post:

In Senate testimony late last month, administration officials said that 163,590 contractor personnel were working in Iraq under Defense contracts, slightly more than the number of U.S. troops there. Of those, 6,467 are armed security personnel, about 1,500 of them American citizens. State Department security contractors total 1,518, about half of them Americans. The officials said that many of the rest are British and South African.

For those of you keeping score at home the ratio of non-armed to armed contractors is an extraordinary 24 to 1. What these figures demonstrate is that the notion of mercenaries or private armies in Iraq, to which Walzer refers, is simply a myth. The vast, vast majority of contractors in Iraq don't carry guns and in fact perform largely support functions.

Right-minded folks can certainly quibble with the notion that contractors (armed or not armed) should be used in combat zones. If you think they have a role to play, identifying areas of expertise or potential roles for private groups in US national security operations is an important debate and frankly one that is long overdue.

But, if we are going to have a serious discussion about the use of private security contractors in US national security operations, understanding what they actually do is fairly essential. Over the years, the level of misinformation or simple hyperbole on the role of contractors has largely come to define this debate, as Walzer's piece dramatize. Hopefully, these figures can offer a pretty good starting point for beginning a fuller and more informed conversation.


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Over the last several years, Phil Carter has addressed some of the issues created by large numbers of armed contractors in a combat zone often at the Intel Dump site. That might be a good point at which to begin a discussion of these issues.

I'd just as soon such a discussion focused on Iraq, where armed contractors actually operate in large numbers, rather than on Darfur. Use of that human catastrophe as a prop by people primarily interested in scoring debating points about contractors is both unseemly and unnecessary.

Aren't you attacking a straw man here? Walzer and others have said that their are mercenaries in Iraq. But nobody said that every private contractor in Iraq - armed or unarmed - is a mercenary. So what does it matter if the ratio of unarmed contractors to armed contractors is 24 to 1, 50 to 1 or 100 to 1?

"But, if we are going to have a serious discussion about the use of private security contractors in US national security operations, understanding what they actually do is fairly essential. Over the years, the level of misinformation or simple hyperbole on the role of contractors has largely come to define this debate, as Walzer's piece dramatize."

I think you're being unfair here. The "informed" debate has been mostly about to what degree contractors should be permitted to flout the law in Iraq. Of course some think that private contractors should not be employed in combat zones to do what our military could do were it not lacking the personnel. The fact that there are "only" 7,000 armed contractors in Iraq seems a bit irrelevant, given the amount of harm they've done to the Iraqis and to our mission in Iraq.

Except that Mike forgot that he just undermined his own argument. If there are only 6,467 actual combat mercenaries in Iraq right now, then how are they possibly essential to the mission? If less than 4% of the combat boots on the ground in Iraq are mercenaries, why do we need them at all? We can't find 4% more soldiers to replace the trigger-happy Blackwater types?

There are reasons to be not very happy with the non-contractors - like the fact that some Iraqi firms might have wanted those contracts and they might have given jobs to Iraqi people who instead became disgruntled insurgents - but if there are only a few thousand real mercenaries in Iraq, why allow them to continue when there is an amazing amount of evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) which says that they are trigger-happy and undermining the general goal of establishing peace?

I think the truth is that the 6,467 number is probably misleading, to put it nicely. Why would the Pentagon and Bush Administration go through this much hassle and headache just to get a few thousand more soldiers? I suspect that there are many many thousand more "non-security" contractors who most people would really classify as solid mercenaries.

I would also add that if this number is true, then there are a lot less mercenaries around for the UN to hire for places like Darfur. It would take a lot more than 10,000 soldiers to bring peace to a place like that; so where would they come from?

Walzer's comments clearly noted his lack of real understanding of the issues and the players. It's true Phil Carter has done some work on this but really Doug Brooks at the IPOA and Chris Taylor th former Blackwater VP and current Harvard grad student have been saying the same thing for years with regard to numbers and services.

None of the US contractors fits the UN definition of mercenary.

The problem with only focusing on Iraq is that it is impossible to capture all of the merits and challenges of using private contractors.

Unfortunately, the media has so bungled the reporting on the PMC industry even they can't untangle the truth from the Gordian Knot they've created.

The use of PSC's in Iraq has been a disaster because it was so poorly thought out. Companies like Aegis that were little more than a business card and a rented office when the invasion started were given half billion dollar contracts by the Pentagon which then treated the whole arrangement as turnkey, no supervision needed.

Anyone who looked like hot shit, could speak a little SF lingo and carry a automatic weapon was hired. At first with a little vetting maybe some minimal training, but when the need for shooters increased dramatically along with the deteriorating security situation most vetting was done away with all together. People were hired over the phone and sent plane tickets for Kuwait. Some very bad people were turned loose on the highways of Iraq.

Many former PSCs have told stories of over the top aggressive behavior even in some cases of targeting Iraq civilians for sport. It is believed that many thousands of Iraqis may have been killed in the early confusion over how they were suppose to respond to the growing numbers of coalition convoys and check points.

Outright criminal behavior likely never involved more than a small number of the contractors but a "what happens in Iraq today stays in Iraq today" mentality among contractors let it go on, justifiably enraging Iraqi citizens and turning more and more against the coalition. Some contractors who were temped to report the bad apples came to feel that they would lose their good paying jobs and nothing would come of their complaints any way. The Aegis "Trophy Video" and how it was handled would seem to bare that out.

If PSC's are to be used at all they must be tightly regulated and supervised by the organization that hires them which also should be held strictly accountable for any human rights abuses. Voluntary industry codes of conduct and internal corporate policing will always lose out to the necessity of maintaining profits and controlling costs.

To even suggest that PSC's should be hired and set loose in Darfur as a "turnkey" solution to the problems there is nuts!

I am in no way whatsoever convinced that the statistic you cited means that of all the contractors in Iraq, *only* about 7000 carry guns. That's one way of interpreting that statistic - and there are many other ways.

Personally, I'd be flabbergasted - totally blown away - if only 7000 of 240000 contractors carry guns. I don't believe it for a minute. And neither should you.

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