Blackwater: The problem is the outsourcing of war

My latest, just posted in The New York Times.

The Blackwater convictions this week brought me back to a fierce debate I witnessed in January 2005 between a Marine colonel and one of Blackwater’s top executives.

The colonel, who had been training Iraqi forces, warned that Blackwater gunmen guarding U.S. officials in Baghdad were “making enemies everywhere” with their Wild West tactics. His prescient fears were later realized in the shootout at Nassour Square that killed 17 Iraqis. Seven years later, what have we learned?

The extensive use of contractors, particularly in intelligence and surveillance, makes it possible to carelessly pursue wars on the sly.

Blackwater, now renamed Academi, is just one cog in an industry that encompasses hundreds of private military companies.

The duties of these companies extend far beyond security. DynCorp, for example, was hired to train the new national army of Liberia, where a massive U.S. military force is deployed to combat Ebola.

These companies are deeply engaged in countries dependent on mining and extractive industries. And they are often hired as subcontractors to larger defense firms on overseas counterterrorism operations, “so they may do the intelligence work and not the actual security work,” an executive with Triple Canopy told me last year. And as a simple Google search will show, many of them have beentouched by scandal.

Their deployment, coupled with extensive use of intelligence and surveillance contractors, makes it possible for the United States to pursue wars on the sly. Who besides their families keeps track of contractor deaths – estimated at over 6,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan – on the battlefield?

To be sure, the Pentagon and Congress have taken some steps to establish greater accountability and rules of engagement for these companies. The United States also signed onto a voluntary set of international guidelines that commit governments to enforce humanitarian and human rights standards when they deploy contractors.

But these rules don’t go far enough. For starters, industry insiders have told me, Congress exempted companies that provide intelligence services from its guidelines. There are no laws to make companies, and not just their personnel, subject to prosecution. Moreover, few countries outside of Europe have endorsed the international principles: only three African states, among the heaviest users of private military contractors, have signed on.

But a mercenary future is not inevitable. We need to reconsider the whole notion of private armies and bring these functions – if needed – back into government. Marines are supposed to guard U.S. embassies, for example; let’s keep them there. If we need to protect U.S. personnel in warzones, let’s commit the resources to do it with our own forces.

Insourcing national security functions has wide political support, and would go a long way toward restoring public trust in the military. And it might keep us from engaging in foolish wars that only create more enemies and make us less safe.

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