Commentary

The Con Side of Contractors

Much of the discussion about the rights and wrongs of private military and security contractors in Iraq is framed either as a capabilities question — can U.S. forces operate without them? — or a values question — should private contractors have such a big role?

But another way of framing the debate — one we might term the Iraqi outcomes question — is whether Iraq itself is being weakened by their presence. A paper written by a colonel at the U.S. Army War College says exactly that.

It found that “the United States and our coalition partners may be unknowingly providing the basis for a future military insurgency, after we depart Iraq, by allowing private military firms (PMF), or private security contractors (PSC), or private security providers (PSP) to provide security in Iraq.”

The paper, “Phasing Out Private Security Contractors in Iraq,” was written in March 2006 by Col. Bobby A. Towery while he was a student at the college. It says, “After our departure, the potential exists for us to leave Iraq with paramilitary organizations that are well organized, financed, trained and equipped. These organizations are primarily motivated by profit and only answer to an Iraqi government official with limited to no control over their actions. These factors potentially make private security contractors a destabilizing influence in the future of Iraq.”

Towery says the use of private contractors in Iraq is a testament to deficient post-conflict planning by the U.S. government.

At this point, more than five years after the start of the war, this is no longer a novel observation, but it’s nevertheless important. First, the U.S. political leadership grossly underestimated the number of troops that would be required for stability and security operations. Ignoring the advice of its own military professionals, the Bush administration chose to invade with far fewer forces than were needed. As a result, companies such as Halliburton were needed just to meet the military logistics requirements of sustaining U.S. and other coalition forces.

Second, as part of the U.S. plan to bring democracy to the Middle East, Iraq was to be remade into a new country. This required a massive reconstruction project to overcome the effects of more than two decades of war against Iran and then the United States as well as the consequences of the sanctions regime. But once again, the U.S. administration miscalculated and did not anticipate the emergence and growth of the insurgency. Since U.S. forces were not available to protect those doing reconstruction work, such firms had no choice but to turn to private security contractors in order to protect their employees.

Towery wrote that this misread on the growing insurgency resulted in a gap between what security the coalition forces, limited by the number of troops on the ground, could provide and the need for security to enable reconstruction. This gap was really the birth of the private security contractors in Iraq, and their use has grown at an almost out-of-control rate since 2003.

Towery writes that private contractors also complicate what is a “complex battle space” in other ways. One of them is the “blue on white” phenomenon in which soldiers have been in conflict with contractors.

A Government Accountability Office official testified to Congress that from January to May 2005, the Reconstruction Operations Center received reports of 20 friendly-fire incidents. It is likely the number of actual incidents during that time period was higher, since some providers said they stopped reporting these types of incidents.

But Towery’s biggest concern is that as long as private contractors remain in Iraq, the country will never be self-sufficient. In his view, in order for the new Iraqi government to be recognized as a sovereign country, it must be responsible for every aspect of security in Iraq.

Towery accepts the Bush administration’s contention that the overall ability of the new Iraqi government to provide all aspects of security — to include that of providing security for contractors operating as part of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq — is much improved.

Thus he proposed the elimination of all private security personnel in Iraq. This includes private security personnel operating on Iraq’s roadways for convoy security, private bodyguards and static security operations conducted outside U.S. government or coalition member-controlled bases and camps. In short, all security requirements will become the responsibility of the new Iraqi government, with the only exception being security for companies that are in direct support of U.S. military or coalition member combat operations.

Of course, the State Department, whose personnel are protected by three private security firms under its Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract, is likely to disagree.

Ironically, even Towery acknowledges the role of contractors in helping to end their role in Iraq. When talking about training an Iraqi special security force to replace private security contractors, he writes:

“Based on the Blackwater training model, the training facilities will be able to produce approximately 150 Iraqi special security police officers, trained for a variety of private security missions, every eight weeks by each training contracting firm. If contracts are given to three training contracting firms, it will take over 133 training sessions, almost seven years, to match the almost 20,000 private security contractors operating in Iraq now. While this is not an overly aggressive replacement rate, it will allow the new Iraqi government ample time to phase out private security contractors in an orderly manner. If the Iraqi government wants to move this process at an accelerated rate, then the contractors responsible for training could use a model similar to that of the police-training program that DynCorp, a subsidiary of California-based Computer Sciences Corp., used to land the initial police-training contract in Iraq.”

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.