Commentary

Blackwater, Najaf — Take Two

One aspect of private military and security contractors that is relatively ignored is their relationship with regular military forces. Such discussion, as there is, is generally limited to sound bites about the reported envy that soldiers have for allegedly better paid security contractors.

But the relationship is far more complicated than that. It is incontrovertibly true that the military no longer can go to war without private military contractors. They are now so structurally embedded that the Pentagon dare not, as the American Express Card commercial puts it, leave home without them. As Paul Lombardi, CEO of DynCorp, said in 2003, “You could fight without us, but it would be difficult. Because we’re so involved, it’s difficult to extricate us from the process.”

That, however, does not mean that the U.S. military is thrilled with the idea.

With the advantage of hindsight, it is clear that there has been friction between clients and contractors on numerous occasions in this field, notably over coordination. It has been a delicate issue. Reportedly there have been many cases of “blue on white” incidents in which soldiers have been in conflict with contractors. In one highly publicized case, a 19-man security convoy, including 16 Americans, from Zapata Engineering, a company hired to destroy enemy ammunition such as shells and bombs, was taken into custody for three days on suspicion of shooting at a U.S. military installation. The contractors felt they had been unfairly arrested and, once in the military prisons, they said they were treated with physical abuse and disrespect. What really happened has never been definitively established, although subsequently it was announced that the contractors had been cleared of all charges.

Many U.S. military officials have not been happy with the presence of security contractors. Col. Peter Mansoor commanded the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Iraq and Germany from July 2003 to June 2005. In an interview last year with Jane’s Defense Weekly, he said the U.S. military needs to take “a real hard look at security contractors on future battlefields and figure out a way to get a handle on them so that they can be better integrated — if we’re going to allow them to be used in the first place.”

The challenges, he suggested, were especially acute in counterinsurgency operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the support of the population is an important military objective. “If they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious, whatever it may be, they may be operating within their contract (but) to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side.”

In fact, on at least one occasion, attacks on contractors caused the U.S. military to launch an operation that many felt it should not have done: notably the April 2004 offensive against Fallujah after the killing and mutilation of four Blackwater contractors.

Still, its defenders say Blackwater has, on more than one occasion, performed above and beyond the call of duty or contract.

On April 4 an attack by hundreds of Iraqi militia members on the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Najaf was repulsed not by the U.S. military, but by eight Blackwater commandos. This incident has been taken as documented fact. One can see video clips online of the Blackwater team supposedly under fire.

Now, however, we need to revise that account, according to the new book “Wiser in Battle” by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq.

Sanchez writes that he began receiving radio reports from a Marine major that he and his men were under attack and had been abandoned by Spanish forces who left them to fend for themselves and that they needed help.

The situation sounded so dangerous that Sanchez immediately ordered close air support. But when the fighters flew over the area, they could see no enemy activity.

Sanchez radioed the major back, who said they were still under attack. “Fighting everywhere. This may be the last radio call we can make before we get overrun. Send help.”

Sanchez decided, given the conflicting reports he was receiving, that he needed to go in person to find out what was happening. While en route, he continued to get dire reports of the troops being under attack.

But when the helicopter arrived, he found no major firefight. When he asked the major how he was getting his reports on enemy attacks, he was told, “These Blackwater and CPA guys are telling me what’s happening.”

When Sanchez went up to the roof of the compound to see for himself, he was informed that there was occasional fire by a sniper but nothing serious. Sanchez then went to see the Spanish brigade commander whose troops allegedly had deserted their posts and left the Americans to fend for themselves.

“Not true, sir,” the commander replied. “Those Blackwater and CPA guys wanted us to put all of our troops back and surround their building. But we didn’t need to do that, because there was never any threat of being overrun. Besides, it was better for us to protect the entire compound rather than just one building.”

Before leaving Najaf, Sanchez told the Marine major that, contrary to his information, he had not been under attack by hundreds of Iraqis, the Spanish had not deserted them, and he had been in no danger of being overrun. “Those civilians were not providing you with accurate information,” Sanchez recalls telling him.

After returning to Baghdad, Sanchez met with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. director of reconstruction in Iraq, and briefed him on what happened. “Although the Ambassador didn’t want to believe it, what had really happened was that the CPA personnel had panicked and the Blackwater civilians were aggravating the situation by having the young major relay bogus information.”

Like Akira Kurosawa’s famous 1950 movie “Rashomon,” what we have here is an incident with decidedly differing points of view. I don’t know who is right, but it bears investigation.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, and a US Navy veteran.