Outlook: Break the Blackwater Habit

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

October 8, 2007

P.W. Singer: Hello to all. Thanks for logging in to ask questions.

Two things to note before we get started.

First, the memo published in the Post was a short summary version of a 20 page, in-depth report that Brookings issued last week on private military contractors and their impact on counterinsurgency. Obviously, it goes into far more detail than ever could within the constraints of the 1000 word online op-ed. Eseentially each sentence in the Post version, has 2-3 paragraphs of detail and citations behind it in the report. It particularly has some great quotes from soldiers on the issue It is available at    

Second, just before publication, the State department announced that it would be taking new measures to reign the problems in. unfortunately, when we look at what they actually did, it aligns very much with that idea of seeing that the emperor has no clothes, but asking him to wear a scarf.

Lets see what they are actually doing:

1) A State Department employee will now do ride-alongs with BW convoys. In essence, we have the odd outcome of the government “embedding,” government employees inside a private operation, which is carrying out a governmental mission. Confused? Some odd aspects of this are that this State person will be essentially like a “chaperone” for the team, but not in operational command of it and not empowered to take any contractual or legal action. These observers will also reportedly only be for Blackwater, which seems to dodge the broader problem of contracting gone too far. As Erik Prince noted, his firm is only one player in a much bigger game. They have some 170 competitors in Iraq. BW has gotten much attention, but it is not the sole firm there, nor the sole one to have problems. Finally, that chaperone will be making somewhere between 300 to 500 dollars less a day (to use Prince’s figures, which are a low ball) than the contractors they will be watching

2) They will mount video cameras on the dashboard. First, not all incidents happen to the front. Second, mant companies already had these. But, third, more importantly, having reports of problems, and even video footage of incidents doesn’t mean much if the Department refuses to act on them. Here is some great video footage from 2 years ago (the Aegis trophy video).  

3) They will better coordinate radio frequencies with the military. Again, this was supposed to be happening in the past already. It still doesn’t solve the problem at hand in any way.

What we have here is a classic Washington response of announcing “action” when there is no real action.


San Antonio: Just a comment, but there was a remarkable set of stories in Stars and Stripes last week that revealed that the Missile Defense Agency’s forward-based anti-ICBM radar in Japan is staffed by one Army captain, one sergeant, and 100 contractors — Raytheon ones to run the radar, Blackwater people with automatic weapons for security. Tiny base assimilates into Japanese town (Stars and Stripes, Oct. 8)

P.W. Singer: yes, a pretty amazing example of how far contracting has gone, some would argue too far. Wired’s Danger Room blog just had a great report on the Blackwater team that is helping with the site.

the requirements are pretty amusing

–must be at least 21 years old,

–with a high school diploma (or GED equivalent),

–experience with ” a civilian police force, military police force, or civilian security guard organization.”

–“ability to apply concepts such as fractions, percentages, ratios, and proportions to practical situations,”

–the Job description is great as well:

“While performing the duties of this job, the employee is frequently required to stand; walk, use hand to finger, handle, or feel objects, tools, or controls; reach with hands and arms; and talk and hear. The employee may occasionally sit for prolonged periods of time at a desk, or table. The employee may stand for prolonged periods of time. Must be able to occasionally travel by designated transportation i.e. aircraft, vehicle, mass transit system.”


Fairfax, Va.: Why do we have mercenaries in Iraq? I remember growing up reading about the British bringing Hessians here to defeat our revolution and have detested the idea of mercenaries ever since. How has it come about that our Congress has allowed it so we have more mercenaries (at outrageous pay) in Iraq than our own soldiers? This doesn’t seem to have bothered people for the past five years, as secret renditions etc. haven’t upset the nation either. Perhaps it’s not so hard to understand why Germans weren’t bothered by the ashes falling from their neighborhood concentration camp ovens — they just adapted to the reality, like we have on Iraq. That’s the horrific damage Iraq has done to our national soul.

P.W. Singer: Great question. If you’ll let me. I will quote from the article we did on this:

“To put it in another way, the war in Iraq would not be possible without private military contractors. This is critically important. Contrary to conspiracy theories, the private military industry is not the so-called “decider,” plotting out wars behind the scenes like Manchurian Global. But, it has become the ultimate enabler, allowing operations to happen that might be otherwise politically impossible. The private military industry has given a new option that allows the executive branch to decide, and the legislative branch to authorize and fund, foreign policy commitments that make an end run around the Abrams Doctrine.

It is sometimes easier to understand this concept by looking at the issue in reverse. If a core problem that U.S. forces faced in the operation in Iraq has been an insufficient number of troops, it is not that the U.S. had no other choices, other than to use contractors to solve it. Rather, it is that each of them was considered politically undesirable.

One answer to the problem of insufficient forces would have been for the Executive Branch to send more regular forces, beyond the original 135,000 planned. However, this would have involved publicly admitting that those involved in the planning, most particularly Secretary Rumsfeld, were wrong in their slam of critics like Army General Eric Shinseki, who warned that an occupation would mean greater requirements. Plus, such an expanded force would have been onerous on the regular force, creating even more tradeoffs with the war in Afghanistan, as well as broader global commitments.

Another option would have been a full-scale call-up of the National Guard and Reserves, as originally envisioned for such major wars in the Abrams Doctrine. However, to do so would have prompted massive outcry amongst the public (as now the war’s effect would have been felt deeper at home), exactly the last thing leaders in the Executive branch or Congress wanted as they headed into what was a tight 2004 campaign.

Some proposed persuading other allies to send their troops in, much as NATO allies and other interested members of the UN had sent troops to Bosnia and Kosovo, to help spread the burden. However, this would have involved tough compromises, such as granting UN or NATO command of the forces in Iraq or delaying the invasion, in which the Administration simply had no interest. This was the war that “was going to pay for itself” as leaders like then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz infamously described in the run up to the invasion, and to share in the operation was to share in the spoils. Plus, much of the world was vehemently opposed, so the likelihood of NATO allies or the UN sending the needed number of troops was always minimal.

By comparison, the private military industry was an answer to these problems, and importantly an answer that had not existed for policymakers in the past. It offered the potential backstop of additional forces, but with no one having to lose any political capital. Plus, the generals could avoid the career risk of asking for more troops. That is, there was no outcry whenever contractors were called up and deployed, or even lost. If the gradual death toll among American troops threatened to slowly wear down public support, contractor casualties were not counted in official death tolls and had no impact on these ratings. By one count, as of July 2007, over 1,000 contractors have been killed in Iraq, and another 13,000 wounded (again the data is patchy here, with the only reliable source being insurance claims made by contractors’ employers and then reported to the U.S. Department of Labor). Since the “Surge” started in January 2007 (this was the second wave of increased troop deployments, focused on the civil war), these numbers have accelerated; contractors have been killed at a rate of 9 a week. These figures mean that the private military industry has suffered more losses in Iraq than the rest of the coalition of allied nations combined. The losses are also far more than any single U.S. Army division has experienced.

Hence, such private losses were looked at by policymakers as almost a “positive externality,” to use an economic term. The public usually didn’t even hear about contractor losses, and when they did, they had far less blowback on our government. Notice the irony: for all the focus on contractors as a private market solution, the costs that they hope to save were political in nature. ”