Merc is the New Crack

America’s deadly dependence on private security contractors in Iraq

Lindsay Beyerstein

Blackwater private security contractors secure the site where a roadside bomb exploded near the Iranian embassy in central Baghdad on July 5, 2005.

The United States is in throes of a deadly addiction, according to Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. In Can’t Win with Em, Can’t Go To War without Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency,” a report released this month, Singer argues that America is hooked on private security contractors.

[Our reliance on private security contractors] has created a dependency syndrome on the private marketplace that not merely creates critical vulnerabilities, but shows all the signs of the last downward spirals of an addiction,” Singer writes. If we judge by what has happened in Iraq, when it comes to private military contractors and counterinsurgency, the U.S. has locked itself into a vicious cycle. It can’t win with them, but can’t go to war without them.”

Shortly before the release of the report, the private security firm Blackwater made headlines for yet another scandal involving violence against Iraqi civilians. On September 16, a Blackwater convoy under contract to the State Department opened fire in a crowed marketplace in the Mansour district of Baghdad, killing as many as 20 civilians, according to Singer’s report. 

The killings sparked nationwide outrage. Prime Minister Maliki called the incident a crime” and the Iraqi Interior Ministry threatened to revoke Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq. In an ironic twist, it turned out that Blackwater had no license to revoke. After high-level American intervention, Blackwater was back in business on September 21

This wasn’t the first international incident sparked by Blackwater contractors. On Christmas Eve 2006, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed the guard of the Iraqi Vice President. The company fired him, and whisked him out of the country within 36 hours. Ten months later, he still has not been charged with any crime.

According Blackwater incident reports obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, employees fired on Iraqi civilians at least 195 times since 2005, an average of 1.4 shooting incidents per week. Blackwater fired the first shots in over 80 percent of the reported incidents. 

Blackwater has fired 122 employees under contract to the State Department for various infractions, according to a 15-page memo issued by the Oversight Committee on October 1. This amounts to more than one-seventh of Blackwater’s current workforce on the State Department contract. 

As Singer notes, outsourcing military duties to private contractors insulates politicians from the political consequences of putting American troops in harm’s way.

Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 2 that his professionals” are a part of the U.S. force in Iraq. Yet, when contractors kill, they do so outside military law. When they die, their deaths are not counted as American military casualties. 

Private security contractors outnumber now outnumber uniformed military personnel in Iraq. According to Singer, there are 160,000 armed civilian contractors in the country today. Some are under contract to U.S. federal agencies, including the State Department. Others are hired by private interests because the American occupying force cannot maintain adequate security. 

Private security companies claim to support the U.S. military, but in fact, the interests of the two groups frequently conflict. Contractors answer to their clients, not to the generals on the ground, and certainly not to the public. Contractors are hired to protect the individuals who sign their checks – even if they undermine the overall counterinsurgency effort in the process. 

These unaccountable private forces are actively undermining the U.S. mission in Iraq by inflaming popular opinion against the occupation. According to Singer, Iraqi civilians see security contractors as an extension of the U.S. military. 

The more damage the contractors do, the more troops are needed to fight the insurgency. As the need for boots on the ground increases, so does the temptation to hire more contractors. 

Ostensibly, the United States is in Iraq to win hearts and minds. Unfortunately, military contractors are making enemies faster than the United States is making friends. 

There is no solution, short of getting the soldiers and the mercenaries out of Iraq as soon as possible. We don’t have enough troops to do the job, and the hired help is only aggravating the problem. 

If Americans won’t volunteer to fight this war, our leaders have no business outsourcing it to private companies. 

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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