Can’t Win with ‘Em, Can’t Go To War without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 27, 2007


The recent incident involving Blackwater contractors in Iraq has brought to light a series of questions surrounding the legal status, oversight, management, and accountability of the private military force in Iraq. This for-hire force numbers more than 160,000, more than the number of uniformed military personnel in Iraq, and it is a good thing that attention is finally being paid to the consequences of our outsourcing critical tasks to private firms.

An underlying question, though, is largely being ignored: whether it made sense to have civilians in this role in the first place. Regardless of whether the Blackwater contractors were right or wrong in the recent shootings, or even whether there is proper jurisdiction to ensure their accountability or not, there is a crucial problem.

The use of private military contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Even worse, it 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. 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.

The study explores how the current use of private military contractors:

  • Allows policymakers to dodge key decisions that carry political costs, thus leading to operational choices that might not reflect public interest. The Abrams Doctrine, which has stood since the start of the all-volunteer force in the wake of Vietnam, has been outsourced.
  • Enables a “bigger is better” approach to operations that runs contrary to the best lessons of U.S. military strategy. Turning logistics and operations into a for-profit endeavor helped feed the “Green Zone” mentality problem of sprawling bases, which runs counter everything General Petraeus pointed to as necessary to winning a counterinsurgency in the new Army/USMC manual he helped write.
  • Inflames popular opinion against, rather than for, the American mission through operational practices that ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency. As one set of contractors described. “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.”
  • Participated in a series of abuses that have undermined efforts at winning “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. The pattern of contractor misconduct extends back to 2003 and has involved everything from prisoner abuse and “joyride” shootings of civilians to a reported incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor shot dead the security guard of the Iraqi Vice President, after the two got into an argument on Christmas Eve, 2006.
  • Weakened American efforts in the “war of ideas” both inside Iraq and beyond. As one Iraqi government official explained even before the recent shootings. “They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans. They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”
  • Reveals a double standard towards Iraqi civilian institutions that undermines efforts to build up these very same institutions, another key lesson of counterinsurgency. As one Iraqi soldier said of Blackwater. “They are more powerful than the government. No one can try them. Where is the government in this?”
  • Forced policymakers to jettison strategies designed to win the counterinsurgency on multiple occasions, before they even had a chance to succeed. The U.S. Marine plan for counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle was never implemented, because of uncoordinated contractor decisions in 2004 that helped turn Fallujah into a rallying point of the insurgency. More recently, while U.S. government leaders had planned to press the Iraqi government on needed action on post-“surge” political benchmarks, instead they are now having to request Iraqi help in cleaning up the aftermath of the Blackwater incident.

The U.S. government needs to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate its use of private military contractors, especially armed roles within counterinsurgency and contingency operations. It needs to determine what roles are appropriate or not for private firms, and what roles must be kept in the control of those in public service. As part of this determination, it is becoming clear that many roles now outsourced, including the armed escort of U.S. government officials, assets, and convoys in a warzone, not only are inherently government functions, but that the outsourcing has created both huge vulnerabilities and negative consequences for the overall mission. A process must immediately begin to roll such public functions back into public responsibility.

Our military outsourcing has become an addiction that is quickly spiraling to a breakdown. Many of those vested in the system, both public and private leaders, will try to convince us to ignore this cycle. They will describe such evident pattern of incidents as “mere anomalies,” portray private firms outside the chain of command as somehow “part of the total force,” or claim that “We have no other choice.” These are the denials of pushers, enablers, and addicts. Only an open and honest intervention, a step back from the precipice of over-outsourcing, can break us out of the vicious cycle into which we have locked our national security.