Security Contractors in War

An American private security contractor that protects State Department personnel in Iraq may be kicked out of the country because its employees reacted with gunfire to a perceived threat.  This incident raises two important questions.  Will this event scuttle our security surge?  Do contractors belong on the battlefield? 

On Sunday, a State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater USA, an American security contractor, was involved in a deadly incident that left eight dead Iraqis.  The event is under investigation and, as a result, Baghdad is reviewing the status of all foreign security companies. 

Presumably, Iraq’s government won’t paint all private security contractors with the same brush.  The US Government employs between 20,000 and 30,000 security personnel from 60 of 181 private security companies in Iraq.  Dismissing some or all of those security contractors could force the US to shift soldiers to duties now performed by civilian hires, jeopardizing the surge. 

The US hosts 180,000 multi-purpose contractors in Iraq as force multipliers to ease the strain on a downsized military by performing roles that in previous wars were filled by those in uniform. 

Much of the logistical support for American forces in Iraq is provided by contractor Kellogg Brown and Root. These hired hands serve chow and clean latrines.  However, the most controversial contractors are those who carry weapons to safeguard supply convoys, buildings and important officials.  Security contractors like Blackwater argue that their focus is on training and protection, not war fighting; however, critics dispute this claim citing Blackwater’s prolonged gun battle in Najaf in April, 2004, defending a US headquarters.

Using contractors to support American war efforts is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the first Gulf War, the ratio of private contractors to military personnel was one to 60.  In Iraq today, that ratio is approaching one to one which begs two questions: Are we over-relying on contractors and does it matter? 

Technically, US citizens hired by contract firms to perform security functions in Iraq do not satisfy the definition of a mercenary.  Article 47 of Protocol I of the Geneva Convention, says mercenaries are recruited to fight in an armed conflict, motivated by private gain, not citizens of a party to the conflict, not members of the military of one of the parties, and have not been sent by another state.  However, citizens of non-coalition nations hired by security firms like Blackwater for duty in Iraq might be considered mercenaries.  Blackwater employs 231 third-country nationals in Iraq.

The mercenary label might make the non-coalition security contractor an unlawful combatant and, therefore, he may not qualify for prisoner of war treatment under the Geneva Convention.  Of course, al Qaeda and Shia insurgents in Iraq almost always ignore and usually violate the Geneva protocols.

Contractors are paying a high price to serve our military.  Many Americans will remember the March 31, 2004, incident when four Blackwater guards in Fallujah were killed while escorting trucks carrying supplies for a private company.  Their bodies were dragged through the streets and their disfigured corpses were strung from a bridge. 

The US Army Corps of Engineers, which keeps casualty data on its contractor-operated convoys, recorded 12,860 supply convoys between 2004 and 2007 during which 132 security employees and drivers were killed and 416 wounded.  Overall, the US Department of Labor reports that 917 private contractors have died and more than 12,000 have been wounded in Iraq.  

These casualty figures illustrate why security contractors like Blackwater are ready to respond to the slightest indication of attack.  Last Sunday, according to the New York Times, an Iraqi soldier was at the checkpoint when the State Department convoy approached.  The soldier reported that the Blackwater guards must have thought the driver of a small car that ignored warnings to stop and was driving on the wrong side of the road toward the convoy was a suicide bomber.  The contractors opened fire in self defense, said the soldier.

Blackwater contractors have learned the price of hesitating.  Two years ago in Mosul three Blackwater guards were killed while traveling in a motorcade.  They held their fire too long and were struck by a suicide driver using a vehicle borne improvised explosive device.  Hundreds of soldiers and contractors have been killed while in traffic by IEDs. 
Critics need to know that when contractors make mistakes there is sufficient authority to hold them accountable.  “Commanders need to be vigilant,” said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a September 16, 2004, letter to all commands.  He urged military leaders to focus on “the terms and conditions of employment for individuals employed by DoD contractors.”  The Secretary said he expected them to “make full use of all tools available” which include firing the contractor or in some cases criminal prosecution.  There are a number of legislative initiatives now being debated that would govern contractors, particularly those carrying weapons.

The policy question Sunday’s incident raises is whether contractors should be used on battlefields.  A major consideration is cost.  A US House of Representatives committee reported that a security guard provided by groups like Blackwater can cost four to ten times more than does a US soldier.  In 2007, Representative Henry Waxman stated that almost $4 billion “has been paid for private security services in the reconstruction effort alone.”

Contractors might be more expensive than soldiers but they can deploy faster than most military forces and they are easily released when their services are no longer required.  That saves money.  Besides, many contractors have completed a career in the military which translates into a performance at least as good as a soldier.  The bottom line for the government should be to determine whether using contractors is worth the cost in lieu of building and maintaining capacity needed for strategic or other important missions.   

Contractors complicate the battlefield.  A 2006 Government Accountability Office report indicates that private security providers don’t always coordinate with US forces when entering the battlefield which increases the chance of friendly fire incidents.  Of course, the military’s challenge is to track all players whether they are foreign military partners or contractors. 

The Iraqi government should limit its response to Sunday’s incident by dealing with the guards and warning the security contractors to exercise more caution. 

Sunday’s incident has forced the US to reconsider whether contractors should be on the battlefield or if the US’s reliance on battlefield contractors serves America’s best interests.    However, the incident also reminds us that thousands of patriotic contractors are sacrificing to support our warriors in Iraq.  We owe these heroes our gratitude.