October 11, 2007

It's time for Blackwater to leave Iraq

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

It's time for Blackwater to leave Iraq
Francona: Private security company is a problem the U.S. doesn't need

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst


The killing of two Iraqi women in Baghdad by an Australian private security contractor has again highlighted the ongoing debate about the role of private security companies in Iraq.

Although there are numerous contract security firms in Iraq, one name always comes to mind, Blackwater USA. One of Blackwater’s major contracts is to provide security, mostly convoy security, for members of the American Embassy in Baghdad as they travel around the area.

It was such a mission that has led to the current scrutiny. On Sept. 16, there was an incident in which 17 Iraqis were killed by Blackwater employees and the Iraqi government believes Blackwater is at fault. The Iraqi government is demanding not only $8 million compensation per victim, but that the United States also hand over Blackwater employees involved in the shootings to face Iraqi justice.

The U.S. government's use of contractors is not unique to the Iraq war nor to the present. It goes back to the Civil War and the push west under Manifest Destiny. Sutlers provided rations and supplies as the U.S. Army moved west. In World War II, contractors were a common sight on military installations, and have always been considered a “force multiplier.” Why use trained soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to do routine, non-military type functions when you can contract them out? Duties such as cooking, cleaning, construction, maintenance, supply, etc. can all be done more effectively by contractors, freeing up trained military personnel for direct combat, combat support and combat service missions.

As the size of American military forces became an issue and troop ceilings were mandated, the use of contractors became even more important. Contractors normally do not count against troop strength. When the Department of Defense is ordered to station only a finite number of troops in a particular area, the use of contractor support allows that lower number to be met more easily. You can maintain a larger force with contractors than without. The advantage is a more potent military force with fewer active troops.

In recent years, the role of contractors has changed, by necessity. With the drawdown of the U.S. military to about one-half of one percent of the population, coincident with a two-front war and our existing global commitments, there are not enough combat forces to meet all the requirements. To meet the demand, contract personnel have moved into roles formerly reserved for military personnel.

Increased contractor roles have provided lucrative opportunities for people with the right skills, including Arabic linguists, interrogators and, of course, former members of elite combat forces, specifically the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. The use of contractor linguists and interrogators became an issue during the Abu Ghraib scandal and at Guantanamo.

Why? The problem is accountability and the ambiguous legal status of contractors. At the Abu Ghraib prison, because they possessed skills critical to the mission, contractors operated outside the normal chain of command and in conditions conducive to abuse. Their status was never officially defined and their legal status not negotiated by the organization sponsoring the contract. What we have seen also is a fundamental change in the use of contractors.

In the past, they provided support and now they have become an integral part of the mission. It is hard to imagine a deployed U.S. military force operating without contractors. This may not sound like a good idea, but with the size of the U.S. military, we have little choice.

The issue at hand is the use of private security companies in Iraq. For the most part, these companies provide a necessary service, guarding supply convoys and protecting infrastructure. Unfortunately, the highly visible presence of companies like Blackwater on the streets of Baghdad has made their name almost a household word. In Baghdad it evokes the same negative psychological response as Abu Ghraib.

Fair? Maybe not, but that is not the issue. The issue is perception, and in the Middle East the perception quickly becomes the reality. Blackwater, once an asset to the U.S. Embassy for protection of its diplomats has become a liability for the overall mission of the United States. This comes at a time when there are some positive results in American military operations.

The Blackwater issue is a distraction we don’t need. The State Department needs to cancel that contract, then enter into another contract but this time with better oversight by the Diplomatic Security Service and well-defined legal parameters.

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