Warriors for Hire in Iraq

Peter W. Singer

View part two of this article, “Outsourcing the War.”

Last Wednesday, the United States woke up to what seemed like a horrible replay of the images from 1993 Somalia. As crowds screamed their vicious delight, the bodies of four Americans were abused and dragged through the streets.

But Fallujah was not Mogadishu, and this was to be no repeat of “Black Hawk Down.” Instead of questioning the mission, the public struggled to figure out who was performing the mission in the first place. For most Americans, Fallujah introduced a realization of how our military operates today in the era of outsourcing. A growing industry of private military firms is filling a huge and often surprising array of roles in Iraq, roles that can even include combat.

The four men killed in Fallujah were not U.S. troops but
rather employees of a little known company, Blackwater USA, that resides
within an industry that until last week, few people even knew existed. Breaking
out of the “guns for hire” mold of traditional mercenaries,
corporations like Blackwater sell the sorts of services that soldiers used to
provide. Known as “private military firms” (PMFs), they range from
small companies that provide teams of commandos for hire to large corporations
that run military supply chains. This new military industry encompasses
hundreds of companies, thousands of employees, and billions of revenue dollars.

In Iraq, they’re also accounting for a growing share of the
force and the casualties. There are 15,000 private personnel carrying out
mission-critical military roles, and they have suffered at least 30 to 50
killed in action, including the four dead contract workers whose bodies were
discovered on Tuesday. Scores more have been taken captive in just the last

The Bush administration was unwilling to enlist serious
assistance from the United Nations or from most of our NATO allies, but thanks
to the PMFs that employ private soldiers of more than 30 nationalities, it has
been able to assemble an international coalition of sorts in Iraq. But it is
more a “coalition of the billing” than of the “willing.”
Indeed, there are more private military contractors on the ground in Iraq than
troops from any one ally, including Britain. One single company, Global Risks,
has a reported 1,100 employees in Iraq, including 500 Nepalese Ghurka troops
and 500 Fijian soldiers, ranking it sixth among troop donors.

Working in over 50 conflict zones, the industry is
emblematic of a broader globalization. PMFs and their clients are located
worldwide, but their single largest client is the U.S. taxpayer; our government
has signed over 3,000 contracts with private military firms in the last decade.
The reliance on this industry was driven by changes in the market after the end
of the Cold War. It boomed in an era of military downsizing (the U.S. military
is about one-third smaller than it was during the 1991 Gulf War) and the
increasing demands of new deployments, the more-technical requirements of
modern warfare, and privatization as a new vogue of government.

While Congress and the senior leadership at the Pentagon do
not have an exact handle on the numbers, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 private
military personnel are in Iraq. They are carrying out essential jobs that
soldiers have done in the past—from handling logistics and maintenance to
training the local army to fighting pitched battles—and they have taken more
casualties than any ally. However, while performing tasks crucial to the operation,
they are not formally part of the force, creating a critical disconnect in such
areas as intelligence sharing, as well as confusion over rights and
responsibilities in the midst of combat.

The size and scope of the private military contingent in Iraq
also cut to the heart of the most troubling questions about the Bush
administration’s handling of the war. They point up the administration’s
inadequate planning and preparation, its lack of transparency about the war’s
financial and human cost, and its sense of denial about whether it put enough
American troops on the ground to accomplish the task handed to them. The hiring
of such a large private force and the ensuing casualties that it has taken
outside of public awareness and discussion have served as a novel means for
displacing some of the political costs of the war. Even more troubling, the
growth of such an ad hoc market arrangement, lying outside the chain of
command, makes an already tough mission even more difficult, and risks lives on
both the troop and contractor side.

Until Fallujah, the private military industry was largely
hidden behind the headlines, present in the world’s hot spots but never fully
acknowledged. When a CIA plane mistakenly coordinated the shootdown of a
planeload of American missionaries over Peru in 2001, few realized that the
plane was manned by contractors for Aviation Development Corp., based in Alabama.
When suicide bombers attacked an American compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,
last spring, few understood what it meant that the targets worked for Vinnell Corp., a Fairfax, Va.,
defense contractor that trains Saudi Arabia’s and Iraq’s armies. When
Palestinian militants killed three Americans in Gaza last fall, most didn’t
realize that they were private military contractors working for DynCorp, a multifaceted government
services firm, based just outside the Washington-Dulles airport. When a
planeload of men was arrested in Zimbabwe last month, with the local regime
claiming they were picking up weapons on their way to an alleged coup plot in
Equatorial Guinea, few understood what it meant when they turned out to be
employees of Logo
a PMF registered out of the British Virgin Islands. When the
State Department spokesman noted that President Aristide of Haiti left office
accompanied by his personal guards, he left out the part that Aristide had
outsourced his protection to the Steele Foundation, a San Francisco firm.

Though it’s little more than a decade old, the privatized
military industry has an estimated $100 billion in annual global revenue. In
fact, with the recent purchase of MPRI
by a Fortune 500 firm, L-3, many
Americans already unknowingly own slices of the PMF industry in their 401Ks.

The firms’ growth is also perhaps best evidenced in the way
they have begun to play the age-old Washington game of lobbying. Employing
mostly former senior government and military officers, the firms already enjoy
broad familiarity with the government contracting process as well as informal
connections with former colleagues and subordinates. But like any other mature
industry, PMFs also feel they must employ lobbyists and make political campaign
donations to stay ahead of each other. In 2001, 10 leading private military firms
spent more than $32 million on lobbying, while they invested more than $12
million in political campaign donations.

Among the leading donors were Halliburton, which gave more
than $700,000 from 1999 to 2002, 95 percent to Republicans, and DynCorp, which
gave more than $500,000, 72 percent to Republicans. Interestingly, Halliburton’s
spending to influence policy declined after its former CEO Dick Cheney became
vice president. During the last two years of the Clinton administration, the
firm spent $1.2 million lobbying the Senate, House of Representatives, and
various executive branch departments. During the first two years of the Bush
administration, Halliburton reported spending just $600,000 (getting a much
better return on its investment, as its contracts roughly trebled).

But the large corporations are not the only ones that have
begun to play the game. With a now public profile, and growing congressional
scrutiny, Blackwater reportedly hired Alexander Strategy Group, one of the more
influential lobbying firms, just days after the contractors’ deaths. Alexander
is run by Tom DeLay’s former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, and also employed
DeLay’s wife, Christine.

But the large corporations are not the only ones that have
begun to play the game. With a now public profile, and growing congressional
scrutiny, Blackwater reportedly hired Alexander Strategy Group, one of the more
influential lobbying firms, just days after the contractors’ deaths. Alexander
is run by Tom DeLay’s former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, and also employed
DeLay’s wife, Christine.

From the beginning, however, private contractors played key
roles in the war in Afghanistan. Their employees deployed with U.S. military
forces on the ground (including serving in the CIA paramilitary units that were
the first to hit the ground), maintained combat equipment, provided logistical
support, and routinely flew on joint surveillance and targeting aircraft. Even
the noted Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes were operated by private
employees. The private firms’ role in the region continues today, with
contractors now part of the CIA/military operation attempting to run down Osama
bin Laden and his associates along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In other anti-terrorism operations around the globe, PMFs
have played similarly wide-ranging roles. The operations in the Philippines
against Islamic guerrillas have DynCorp working on logistics, while other members
of the firm are playing a more active role in anti-narcotics and
counter-guerrilla operations in Colombia. When the United States deployed a
military training contingent to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to help
root out radical Muslim terrorists, the team was mostly made up of PMF
employees. The Taliban and al-Qaida members unlucky enough to be caught can
plan on spending their next years housed in a military prison at Guantánamo
Bay, built not by U.S. soldiers but by the KBR division of Halliburton, and interrogated
by private contractors from firms like Titan.

In fact, the PMF industry was one of the few whose economic
outlook was improved rather than harmed by the 9/11 attacks. While the U.S. and
global economy suffered from the shock, the prices of PMFs listed on stock
exchanges jumped roughly 50 percent in value, with L-3’s even doubling. A
number of firms were launched in the aftermath of the attacks, hoping to tap
the boom market. One example is Janusian,
a British venture that seeks to provide protection and intelligence against
terrorist attacks. “The war on terrorism is the full employment act for
these guys,” one Defense Department official commented. “A lot of
people have said, Ding, ding, ding! Gravy train!”

But the Iraq War is where the history books will note that
the industry took full flight. Iraq is not just the biggest U.S. military
commitment in a generation but also the biggest marketplace in the short
history of the privatized military industry. In Iraq, private actors play a
pivotal role in great-power warfare to an extent not seen since the advent of
the mass nation-state armies in the Napoleonic Age.

Before the war, private firms helped out with an array of
tasks—operating supply lines, running training exercises, and even assisting
with the war gaming and battle planning in the Kuwaiti desert that later proved
so successful. The huge U.S. Army complex at Camp Doha, where the invasion was
launched, was built, operated and guarded by a vast private operation led by a
consortium called Combat Support
(While CSA was operating in Kuwait, firms in the consortium were
registered as “100 percent Native American-owned” and thus could use
Minority Business Enterprise certifications as a way to gain preference in the
government acquisition process.) These roles were not without their risks. Even
before the battle started, several private military personnel were killed or
wounded in live-fire exercises and, in a taste of what was to come, two
civilian technicians were murdered by terrorists in a drive-by shooting in Kuwait.

During the major combat operations phase of the Iraq War
last spring, private military employees handled everything from feeding and
housing U.S. troops to maintaining sophisticated weapons systems like the B-2
stealth bomber, F-117 stealth fighter, Global Hawk UAV, U-2 reconnaissance
aircraft, M-1 Tank, Apache helicopter, and air defense systems on numerous Navy
ships. While civilians had always accompanied U.S. forces on deployments, all
the way back to the sutlers who sold shoes and other consumer wares at Valley
Forge, never had the U.S. military been so reliant on outsiders to accomplish
its mission. Indeed, the pre-invasion ratio of private contractors to U.S.
military personnel in the Gulf was roughly 1 to 10 (10 times the ratio during
the 1991 war). Our allies, including the British and Australians, also depended
heavily on contracted support.

During the occupation of Iraq, the demand for private
assistance skyrocketed, particularly as the rosy scenarios made by political
appointees in the Pentagon before the war proved false. Presently, an estimated
15,000 or more private military contractors are on the ground in Iraq, working
for tens of companies and their subcontractors, providing tasks that only
soldiers once performed. The CPA estimates that after sovereignty is granted to
a largely nonexistent Iraqi government at the end of June, these figures may
rise to as high 30,000. Jobs such as guarding the Green Zone in Baghdad will be
privatized as well. We don’t know the exact figures, because the Bush
administration maintains no formal tracking of the numbers. The very lack of
any accounting illustrates the dire need for better oversight and

Outsourcing has provided a novel means to reduce some of the
political costs of the war. Reserve call-ups are lessened and compromises with
allies unnecessary. Any public dismay over casualties is also dampened. Unlike
the formal reporting of U.S. military casualties, release of such information
is at the discretion of each individual firm. Just as no one knows the exact
number of private military contractor boots on the ground, so, too, does no one
know the number of killed and wounded. From a survey of industry insiders as
well as hometown press reports that sometimes announce the deaths, estimates
are that between 30 and 50 private military contractors have been killed in the
fighting in Iraq, with tens more killed in accidents. Assuming the rough ratio
of killed versus wounded that has held among U.S. troop casualties (1 to 6),
this means that upward of 200 to 300 private casualties have gone unreported on
the public ledger. That is more than the entire 82nd Airborne Division lost in Iraq
over the past year.

Private military firms carry out three crucial functions in Iraq:
military support, military training and advice, and certain tactical military roles.
It is important to note that official U.S. military doctrine has long held that
“mission critical” roles must be kept inside the force. It has also
held that civilians accompanying the force should not be put into roles where
they must carry or use weapons, allowing the carry of sidearms (that is,
pistols) only in the most extraordinary circumstances. But what used to be the
exception is now the rule.

Military support firms help with logistics and engineering,
as well as assisting with tasks such as tactical and non-tactical vehicle
maintenance and repair. The major player in this sector has been Dick Cheney’s
former firm, Halliburton. Operating under the LOGCAP contract (Logistics
Civilian Augmentation Program), Halliburton has done about $6 billion worth of
business on Iraq contracts.

Many consider such tasks secondary and in line with the
broader military outsourcing of such ancillary jobs as lawn mowing at bases. But
they could not be more wrong when it comes to logistics. As official U.S.
military doctrine states, “Since the dawn of military history, logistical
capabilities have controlled the size, scope, pace, and effectiveness of
military operations … Logistical capabilities must be designed to survive and
operate under attack; that is, they must be designed for combat effectiveness,
not peacetime efficiency.” Or, as Gen. Omar Bradley succinctly put it,
“Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics.”

Bradley’s view was proved right in the days after the
Fallujah attacks. In an e-mail obtained by Knight Ridder News, a senior U. S.
official in Iraq warned his superiors at the Pentagon’s program management
office in Baghdad that Halliburton senior executives had said they were
“considering withdrawing from the country” because of security
concerns. The official noted that a cut in LOGCAP services by the firm would
cause the “complete collapse of the support infrastructure” of the
operation. Halliburton denied it was considering a withdrawal, while the CPA
would not comment. Regardless, it underscored how vulnerable military officers
felt the operation had become to outside corporate decision-makers.

As violence spread in the ensuing week, Halliburton and
other military support firms put their employees on “lockdown,” and
operations were suspended in several key areas. After another fuel convoy was
ambushed and seven contractors went missing (one, Thomas Cahill, a dairy farmer
turned military convoy truck driver, is presently held captive, while four of
the civilians have since been found dead), movement by the firms effectively
ceased in large portions of Iraq, including the Kuwait-to-Baghdad supply run.
As they lie outside the military code of justice, constitutionally, the
military simply can not order these firms to take the risks and truck on as it
could have done with military units in the past. Officers have begun to worry
about what this will mean for critical fuel and supply stocks they depend on to
carry out their missions.

While its scope was debatable, the process behind LOGCAP
used to be fairly noncontroversial, as the original contract to provide field
logistics support to the U.S. Army was competitively bid out. However, eyebrows
began to rise when in the months just before the war, nonmilitary tasks such as
oil-well fire fighting and then oil field repair and operation were
noncompetitively added to the purview of military logistics. Thus, through
LOGCAP, Halliburton cornered the logistics and oil services market and has so
far gained a 62 percent jump in revenue.

While the defense has been made that Halliburton is the only
firm capable of such a job, it is important to note that Halliburton often acts
as a middle man, meaning the U.S. military outsources tasks to a firm that
outsources them further. Indeed, those who have seen the recent Halliburton
commercials on TV, showing proud American employees serving happy soldiers, would
be confused by who actually works at the firm’s kitchens, usually third-world
nationals flown in from places like Bangladesh and the Philippines. The
contractor-subcontractor relationship has not always been a smooth one, with U.S.
forces at risk of the consequences. In February, several of the subcontractor
firms publicly complained that they had not been paid by Halliburton, despite
its huge revenue stream, and threatened to cut off food service to U.S. troops
until they were.

Other concerns in the military-support arena are overbilling
and quality assurance. As anyone familiar with construction or home repair will
attest, it is essential to have competition to determine the most efficient
contractor at the best price; it is also essential to maintain oversight to
prevent being bilked and getting shoddy work. In the military effort in Iraq,
this basic function has largely been AWOL, mainly as a result of poor planning
and the lack of military, as opposed to contractor, oversight funding. The
contract management office in Baghdad, for example, originally had five
personnel in charge of managing some $18 billion in contracting. It later added
nine more, leaving a still-daunting ratio of about $1.3 billion in oversight
per person, in the middle of probably the most confusing contract zone in

The result has been a series of snafus and suspected
swindling, best captured by the weekly drumbeat of financial scandals that Rep.
Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has unearthed about Halliburton contracts in Iraq. The
allegations circling the firm ranged from charging for tens of thousands of
meals never served to soldiers, to billing for inappropriate extras such as
adding the firm’s logo to hand towels. But Halliburton was far from the only
firm about which these concerns were raised. An investigation by the Pentagon’s
inspector general report found Pentagon procurement rules have not been
followed in 22 of 24 deals awarded by the Defense Contracting Command for
services in Iraq. One of the perhaps amusing examples was the U.S. taxpayer’s
purchase of a Hummer H2 (the über-expensive SUV familiar from rap music videos)
for a SAIC program manager, which included payment for the charter of a DC-10
cargo jet to fly it to Iraq.

Military consulting firms represent another market sector
and carry out a number of military advisory and training services. The
responsibility of creating the post-Saddam police, paramilitary forces and army
has been outsourced to various firms. The importance of this work is without
dispute. The U.S. plan for disengagement from Iraq is dependent on the
formation of such local forces, and for decades they will be the operation’s
institutional legacy.

DynCorp, a multibillion-dollar government services firm
based in Reston, Va., is the major player in the police training program. The
contract was originally awarded for $50 million but could be worth as much as
$800 million. While the firm relies on the federal government for about 96
percent of its business (it spends more than a million dollars a year on
lobbying and has written another dozen checks to the RNC in the last few
years), it has a decided public relations problem stemming from the sex-trade
scandal in the Balkans. Under two separate contracts in Bosnia and Kosovo, a
number of its employees were implicated in sex crimes and the black-market arms
trade, including its Bosnia site manager, who videotaped himself raping two
young women. Because of a gap in the law, none were ever criminally prosecuted,
and the whistleblowers
in the incident
(as opposed to the perpetrators) later sued the firm after
they were fired. The firm has since set up an in-house screening program, which
it hopes will avoid such incidents in the future.

is in charge of the program for setting up a paramilitary guard force for Iraq’s
oil fields, obviously key to starting up the economy. Given that it did not
exist before the war, Erinys surprised many established firms in the industry
by winning the $39.2 million contract. Then, the firm raised eyebrows by
importing many former South African soldiers and police who had worked for the
old apartheid regime. However, the contract has gone well; since it took charge
of operations, attacks on oil pipelines have declined. In little over four
months Erinys trained, armed and deployed more than 9,000 Iraqi guards across
the country. It plans to expand the force to nearly 15,000. Others credit not
the raw numbers but the sensible payoff of local tribal leaders to protect the
pipelines, much as what happened with the past regime.

Vinnell, MPRI and Nour USA have been engaged in training and equipping the new Iraq
army, a task whose cost could reach as high as $2 billion. Vinnell, a
subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, is notable for being the only firm targeted by
al-Qaida twice, having offices bombed in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and 2003. MPRI is
a firm of primarily former U.S. Army officers, all the way up to four-star
generals. The company’s major client is training for the U.S. Army, but it has
also worked on contracts in Croatia, Bosnia, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Nour’s
contract became particularly controversial when allegations surfaced that the
firm was linked with neoconservative darling Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile
leader many blame for the faulty intelligence used to whip up war sentiment in
the United States Despite having no operating history, the politically
connected firm is alleged by its competitors to have beaten out more
established firms by lowballing its contract by several hundred million
dollars. The contract has since been suspended and is now being re-awarded,
resulting in months of delay in the vital task of readying an Iraqi army. One
U.S. Army contracting officer remarked to Jane’s Defense Weekly, ” I’ve
been in Army contracting for 28 years and I’ve never heard of it happening like

In the shifting battlefield of Iraq, military support and
military consulting have become more dangerous. Unlike the firms in such places
as Bosnia or Kosovo, in Iraq these contractors have taken an increasing number
casualties. While these roles had originally been contemplated to lie outside
the battlefield, the front lines have become all-encompassing, bringing
everyone under fire. For example, Thomas Cahill, the struggling Mississippi
dairy farmer turned convoy truck driver captured by insurgents last week, was
doing a job quite similar to, and no less dangerous than, that carried out by Pvt.
Jessica Lynch. The only difference is that he is a private contractor and she
was regular Army. In response to the reality of these dangers, many of these
support contractors and consultants have armed themselves. With the U.S.
military unwilling to provide weapons, many are now turning to the black

But the most dramatic and controversial expansion of PMF
involvement is in the combat realm. Before Iraq, PMFs had fought in several
combat zones, the most notable being Executive Outcomes’ participation in the Sierra
Leone and Angola wars. But Iraq is the first time that firms have played tactical
roles alongside large numbers of U.S. troops in the field.

In Iraq, tactical PMFs, also known as military providers,
play three key roles: They help defend key installations, protect key
individuals such as Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer, and
escort convoys. Each is obviously critical to the mission’s success. If bases,
buildings and other key installations are captured or destroyed, if key leaders
like Bremer get killed, or if the supplies don’t flow, then the operation

A listing of some 20 firms that offer such services is
available from the State Department’s Iraq
travel Web site,
but curiously does not mention Blackwater. The same issues
— the contractual process and the lack of oversight—suffuse this sector (in
one study of $58 million in protection contracts let by the CPA, five of six
contracts were no-bid). But the stakes are far higher than wasted taxpayer

Sometimes, these assignments are described euphemistically
as “private security” to make them sound less military. But these are
not private guards who stroll at the local shopping mall. They involve
personnel with military skills and weapons who carry out military functions,
within a war zone, against military-level threats. Custer Battles, for example,
is a Virginia firm that has the airport security contract in Baghdad. Airport
security in this context does not mean bored attendees standing by an X-ray
machine, but rather former Green Berets and Ghurka fighters defending the
airport from mortars, rockets and snipers.

In short, the roles performed by these firms entail the same
risks or even greater ones than those faced by U.S. military forces. As
fighting has spread, PMFs have been at the forefront. Blackwater, the firm that
lost the four men in Fallujah, just days later defended the CPA headquarters in
Najaf from being overrun by radical Shiite militia. The firefight lasted
several hours, with thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, and Blackwater
even sent in its own helicopters twice to resupply its commandos with
ammunition and to ferry out a wounded U.S. Marine. The same night, Hart Group,
Control Risks and Triple Canopy were all involved in pitched battles. Unfortunately,
the Hart position was overrun. Abandoned by nearby Coalition forces, the firm’s
employees had to leave one of their comrades dead on a rooftop on which he and
four colleagues had been fighting after their house had been captured.

The extent of these firms’ combat role is largely off
policymakers’ radar screen. Not only is Congress woefully ignorant of the
contracts that its budgets have paid for, but senior Pentagon officials are, at
best, in self-denial about the depth of the outsourcing. When pressed on the
issue at a news briefing just days after the Fallujah deaths, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld’s response was a prototypical nonsensical Rummyism.

Reporter: Why is the armed services privatizing armed

Rumsfeld: The armed services are not privatizing armed

Reporter: Those men were providing security for…

Rumsfeld: Society.

Reporter: A convoy.

Rumsfeld: The society is privatizing security.

Reporter: However you want to say it.

Likewise, discussions with high-ranking military officers
reveal that many at the most senior levels have not factored what privatization
means for operations on the ground. One high-ranking general involved in Iraq
operations at the Pentagon had not even heard of the battles above, let alone
the Blackwater firm, still contending that firms handled only secondary tasks
like K.P. duty. Indeed, when the command staff of CENTCOM toured the Najaf
battle site just hours after the heroic stand by the Blackwater employees,
their briefing did not even mention the key role of the firm in saving the day.

In a field that often lacks transparency and sometimes
includes shady characters, Blackwater is a firm with a reputation for
professionalism; it has never had a major allegation of malfeasance leveled
against it. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also one of the few that has
opened up its facilities to the press.

Blackwater was originally located in the military training
sector and got its start in 1996. Founded by an ex-Navy SEAL, Gary Jackson, the
firm has a 5,200-square-acre facility located in tiny Moyock, N.C. Moyock may
be in the heart of North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp, but it is just 25 miles south of Norfolk Naval Base. Blackwater’s facility is the largest privately owned
firearms training complex in the nation, and many consider it to have the best
tactical shooting program. More than 50,000 personnel have gone through its
training, and experts ranging from SEALs to SWAT teams (the World SWAT
Challenge is held onsite) laud its facilities. In the current threat
environment, the firm has focused on anti-terrorism programs, such as signing a
$35 million co