Sure, He’s Got Guns for Hire. But They’re Just Not Worth It.

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

October 7, 2007

To: Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense

cc: Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State

Subject: Breaking Our Blackwater Addiction

The more we hear about the deadly Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad involving contractors from the private military firm Blackwater USA, the worse it sounds. Despite investigations by the Iraqi government, the FBI and your department and last week’s House hearings, we may never fully know what happened in the chaos that hospital records show left at least 14 Iraqis dead and 18 wounded. (The contractors claim that they were fired on first, while Iraqi witnesses and officials say that the Blackwater guards opened fire on a small car, carrying a couple and their child, that wouldn’t get out of the way in a busy traffic circle.) But by now, we do know a great deal about the business of relying on hired guns — more than enough to convince you that the Pentagon and State Department urgently need to change their ways.

By your own department’s count, more than 160,000 for-hire personnel are working in Iraq today, which, amazingly, is greater than the number of uniformed military personnel there. These private forces perform all sorts of key functions, such as moving fuel, ammunition and food, as well as protecting top U.S. officials and guarding bases and convoys. Handing those tasks over to U.S. troops would further overstretch a military that you’ve warned is already dangerously overstretched. Hence the allure of outsourcing the jobs to private firms. But while we can’t go to war without ’em, we also can’t win with ’em. Our military outsourcing has become an addiction, and we’re headed straight for a crash.

We’ve done poorly at a cold cost-benefit analysis here. It’s far from clear that contractors save us money; when pressed on this score by the House last week, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince went from claiming cost savings to pleading ignorance of his own firm’s profits. (He did, however, let slip that he makes at least $800,000 per year more than you do, for overseeing a force that’s a tiny fraction of the size.) Oversight has been miserably lacking, as has the will to use civilian or military law to hold contractors accountable for bloody messes such as the Baghdad shootings. On balance, for all the important jobs that contractors are doing, Blackwater and its kin have harmed, rather than helped, our troops’ counterinsurgency efforts.

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In Iraq, the clear pattern shows that military outsourcing: 

  • Lets policymakers dodge tough, politically costly decisions, which makes for bad operational choices. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has sought to ensure that there’s a link between the public and the costs of war, so that good decisions would be made and an ethos of responsibility fostered. With about half our operation in Iraq in private hands, that link has been jeopardized.
  • Encourages a “bigger is better” approach to operations, 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” of having Americans huddle inside sprawling bases in Iraq. Bigger bases may yield bigger profits for the private firms, but they also entail an isolation that runs counter to everything your field commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, told us we need to win a counterinsurgency campaign in the new Army-Marine Corps manual he helped write. 
  •  Inflames popular opinion about the U.S. mission. Even when no one gets hurt, the standard tactics used by Blackwater and other private military firms ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency warfare. Of course, not all contractors are “cowboys” or “mercenaries,” as they are often described; many are talented ex-soldiers (for whose training we are now being doubled-billed, but that’s another memo). But their “job,” as Prince put it at the hearings, is quite different from the broader mission. Focused only on their contract, the private firms’ standard practices include driving their convoys up the wrong side of the road, ramming civilian vehicles, tossing smoke bombs and opening fire with machine guns as warnings. As one contractor hired to guard U.S. officials put it, “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.”
  • Produces a series of abuses that undermine efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds. The pattern of contractors hurting or killing civilians extends back to 2003, involving everything from prisoner abuse and “joyride” shootings to an alleged incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor shot dead the bodyguard of Iraq’s vice president after the two got into an argument inside the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006.
  • Hurts American efforts in the “war of ideas,” in Iraq and beyond. As one Iraqi 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.” The recent shootings were covered extensively across the wider Muslim world, yet again hammering U.S. attempts at public diplomacy.
  • Undermines efforts to build up Iraqi civilian institutions, the very things we need to get our troops out. Iraqi officials say that recent incidents have “embarrassed the government,” making it seem as if the contractors were above the law. 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?”
  • Creates huge vulnerabilities that undermine the overall mission. When the insurgency flared dramatically in 2004, contractor convoys suspended operations, leading one retired U.S. Army general to describe our military supply system as a “house of cards.” When the Iraqis recently banned Blackwater, it wasn’t just the firm that stopped operations for five days; so, in effect, did all U.S. diplomatic and intelligence efforts in Iraq, because they were completely reliant on Blackwater guards to leave the Green Zone.
  • Forces policymakers to jettison promising counterinsurgency strategies before they even have a chance to succeed. The success or failure of the troop “surge” hinges on senior U.S. officials’ ability to pressure the Iraqi government to share power more effectively and reach other political benchmarks. Instead of doing so, you and President Bush are now having to ask for Iraqi help and understanding to clean up the aftermath of the Blackwater fiasco.

    * * *

    Those vested in the system will try to persuade you to ignore this cycle, to pass off an obvious pattern as mere anomalies. At the hearings, the owner of a private firm, outside the chain of command, oddly described his company as somehow being “part of our nation’s total force.” Then State Department officials claimed that they had no choice but to outsource security tasks to Blackwater, rather than admit that they had preferred not to make choices that carried political costs. These are the denials of enablers, pushers and addicts.

    The blunt truth is that while contractors are carrying out valuable roles, their overall effect has been to undermine the Iraq mission and the wider fight against terrorism. Worst of all, we have outsourced the most important core function of our government: to fight and win the nation’s wars.

    The U.S. government needs to go back to the drawing board on its use of private military contractors, especially regarding important armed roles in Iraq and future operations. These should again be handled by the government. This will take time, and it will mean shifting resources and personnel. But hard choices are what leaders make, not outsource.

    If you and Secretary Rice prove unwilling or unable to break your departments’ addictions to these hired guns, Congress will have to do it for you. After last week’s hearings, the House voted overwhelmingly to shore up legal accountability for Blackwater and its brethren. This is a small start but not the final fix. Now that we can all see that the emperor has no clothes, the answer is not to kindly ask him to put on a scarf.