Blackwater USA Hurting War Counterinsurgency

Blackwater USA and other private security firms are obstructing the US military’s counterinsurgency operations and further endangering US troops in Iraq, according to an independent study due to be released today.

Earlier this week the US and Iraqi governments took action to make private contractors in Iraq accountable for their actions, stemming from a September 16 incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater personnel shot and killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians.

The new report to be released by the Brookings Institution today was authored by Dr Peter Singer, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Institution and author of the 2003 book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

An advance copy of the new study was obtained by TPM Muckraker, who reported that Dr Singer had found that the US military has become functionally dependent on private contractors in Iraq for a range of combat operations and logistical tasks, even though the firms serve to impede the counterinsurgency effort.

A major problem is that Iraqis have come to regard the private contractors as little more than lawless mercenaries due to their intimidating and dangerous behavior, and apparent lack of accountability – an unhelpful image for the counterinsurgency plan led by General David Petraeus, which works to provide a greater feeling of security for Iraqis. The criminal immunity of private contractors – under both US and Iraqi laws – also infuriates Iraqis and puts contractors and US troops at greater risk of harm.

The lack of oversight, management, doctrine, accountability and coordination has been a festering issue for some time in terms of the overall US military mission in Iraq. In a recent Wired News article, Dr Singer cites a 2006 Government Accountability Office report which found that “private security providers continue to enter the battle space without coordinating with the US military, putting both the military and security providers at a greater risk for injury.”

He also notes that Colonel Peter Mansoor, a top military advisor on counterinsurgency and currently General Petraeus’ executive officer – told Jane’s Defense Weekly earlier this year that the US 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. If they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious … they may be operating within their contract (but) to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side. I would much rather see all armed entities in a counterinsurgency operation fall under a military chain of command.”

The military commanders appear to have gotten their wish, nearly a year after Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced an amendment enabling contractors to be placed under the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In response to the September 16 shooting in Baghdad – the seventh Blackwater shooting incident come under investigation – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a team of Pentagon investigators to Iraq to discuss the use of military contractors with General Petraeus. Two days later, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England sent a three-page memo to Pentagon officials and US military commanders around the world to make clear that they have the responsibility and authority under the UCMJ to “disarm, apprehend and detain” security guards under contract to the Department of Defense if they are “suspected of having committed a felony offence” – which includes excessive force.

However, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon directive will not affect private contractors engaged by the State Department, including Blackwater – the firm which has the lead role in guarding diplomatic convoys in Baghdad.

This is not welcome news for local Iraqis, especially since it was reported earlier this week that Backwater has been involved in twice as many shootings as other security companies while guarding American diplomats in Iraq. “You can find any number of people, particularly in uniform, who will tell you that they do see Blackwater as a company that promotes a much more aggressive response to things than other main contractors do,” a senior American official told the New York Times.

The action taken by the US government may seem too little, too late – and perhaps too confusing – for the Iraqi government, whose parliament has drafted its own law to hold all private contractors accountable for any further shootings of civilians. A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, told the New York Times, “This legislation will cover all aspects of these companies’ operations and bring them all under Iraqi law and the mechanisms of the Interior Ministry. They will be strictly accountable for all actions committed on the streets.”

Considering this week’s developments, it seems that the days of footloose and accountability-free private security contractors may be coming to an end.

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