February 9, 2007

Privatizing the War in Iraq

Guest Writer: L. Vincent Sebastian

This article summarizes some of the issues surrounding private armed forces involved in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. It draws from the sources referenced at the end.

With the casualty count growing daily and troops stretched thin on the ground, the Bush administration is looking to mercenaries to help control Iraq. The practice of using mercenaries to fight wars is not new, but has become increasingly popular in recent years. During the first Gulf War, one out of every 50 to 60 soldiers on the battlefield was a mercenary. The number had climbed up to one in ten during the Bosnian conflict. Currently in Iraq, more than 40 percent of the total occupying force comprises private contractors. For President Bush and his political allies, war has become just another industry to be outsourced, with contractors providing a backdoor means of expanding the occupation through the deployment of private armies.

In his State of the Union address in last month, Bush mentioned a major new initiative in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian Reserve Corps. Bush said: “Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them.” But this is precisely what the administration has already done, largely behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional input. Private contractors constitute the second-largest force in Iraq, about 100,000 strong, of which 48,000 work as private soldiers, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The number of private soldiers (armed security contractors) has more than doubled in the last two years, up from 20,000 in the first quarter of 2005. This is an undeclared expansion of the scope of the occupation.

This expansion is paid for with taxpayer dollars, of course. Obviously, the training of U.S. military personnel is paid for by our tax dollars. However, once skilled and experienced soldiers becomes eligible for discharge, private, for-profit corporations such as Blackwater USA (see footnote below) may recruit them away from the military, offering salaries much higher than those paid by the military. The average pay for a contractor on “active duty” is $500 to $600 a day, and may be as much as $1,000 a day, which is far more than that of military personnel. This is a strong incentive. One contractor said that he is regularly approached by far younger, low-paid U.S. servicemen, who ask about jobs at Blackwater.

The problem is that firms such a Blackwater rely primarily on large, taxpayer-funded U.S. government contracts to stay in business, not on the business of private sector customers or clients. Blackwater has a $300-million, no-bid contract (from 2003) with the State Department to guard diplomats in Iraq. Thus, tax dollars are used first to pay to train the troops, then to pay them a lot more to do basically the same job with a private contracting firm, and finally to pay hefty profits to the contracting firm.

While Blackwater is known in some quarters for its professionalism (it sees itself as the FedEx of defense and homeland security operations), the credentials of other firms are more questionable. Consider Aegis Defense Services, for example. Aegis was awarded a $293 million contract from the U.S. government to provide security in Iraq, despite the fact that its principal (Tim Spicer) was suspected of being involved in the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, for which his former business associate (Simon Mann) was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison in Zimbabwe; and despite the fact that Aegis had no previous experience in Iraq and didn't have the resources to fulfill the contract. The controversial nature of this contract got the attention of Congress, and eventually the Pentagon admitted that its contracting officer was completely unaware of Spicer's background. Aegis’s first DOD audit in 2005 was damning, including the charge that the company was trying to ramp up so fast to meet the contract requirements they were hiring poorly vetted Iraqis and giving them passes to the Green Zone. The company also came under scrutiny when videos of Aegis contractors indiscriminately firing at civilian cars surfaced on the Internet. Despite this, Aegis continues to carry out extensive contracting operations in Iraq.

The role of private contractor personnel is ambiguous and controversial. Typically, they are bodyguards (for diplomats and other officials), or are armed guards hired to protect oil wells or to provide security for airports or along transportation corridors. These private soldiers have operated with almost no oversight or effective legal constraints. In the first years of the war, there were no rules limiting contractors’ use of force in Iraq. They could shoot to kill, but had little accountability. If contractors misbehaved – as they did at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison – they rarely faced charges. Why? Because private contractors are not legally considered combatants. Military law applies to the troops, but not to contractors, even though contractors are frequently in the same combat situations as the troops – where life and death decisions are made. The military can take disciplinary action and/or bring criminal charges against U.S. troops – but not against contractors – that break rules, regulations, and laws (including the Geneva Conventions) that govern troop conduct during times of war.

U.S. military officials have expressed concern about combat situations in which contractors open fire. Recently, the State Department imposed restrictions discouraging contractors from firing warning shots. As a consequence, private military firms have recently shifted their focused to “peacekeeping” duties (in part, to improve their image). But, there are still frequent reports of contractors running Iraqis off the road or injuring or killing innocent people. In carrying out their assignments, contractors can be very aggressive, offending locals and making enemies each time they go out (from a statement by retired Marine colonel T. X. Hammes). Ultimately, a contractor’s paid mission may not be fully consistent with that of the U.S. military, and may not support the broader interests of the U.S. counterinsurgency.

At the same time, the contractor’s work is as risky or riskier than that of the U.S. troops, and may make the jobs of both more difficult. The prospect of private armed security guards moving around combat zones adds a level of uncertainty and complexity for the troops (“Is that SUV coming toward us friend or foe?”). On many occasions, contractors have been fired upon by U.S. soldiers and Marines at checkpoints. Contractors are also targets for insurgents and militia in Iraq, as seen in early 2004 when four Blackwater employees were ambushed and burned in the Sunni hotbed of Fallouja. Multiple execution-style killings of contractors have taken place since then, the most recent just hours before Bush’s State of the Union address last month.

As the number of U.S. (and coalition) troop deaths rises, contractor deaths go uncounted in the official toll. The non-counting of contractors is certainly politically expedient since the official number hides some of the human costs of war. As of the first quarter of 2005, there were an estimated 240 deaths among some 20,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq. This number was not obtained from military sources, but from the Department of Labor (through Freedom of Information Act requests), which tracks the number of contractors that have been killed because the federal government has a program to insure contractors who service the US military abroad (an outgrowth of the Defense Base Act). More than 600 families of contractors in Iraq have filed for these benefits. Contractor firms such as Blackwater are under no obligation to make public the identities of those killed or details of the deaths.

Yet, 240 deaths (as of early 2005) is an underestimate of true number of contractors killed because it accounts for only contractors that are eligible for federal benefits inside the United States. Many of the 48,000 U.S.-funded mercenaries in Iraq are not Americans, and their deaths are not tracked by the Labor Department.

Blackwater and other U.S.-based military contractors have created a private military melting pot by hiring not only Americans, but also mercenaries from Bosnia, Chile, Colombia, the Filipeans, and South Africa. Many of these soldiers-for-hire are veterans of repressive military regimes, including that of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and South Africa’s former apartheid government. Other recruits are impoverished former military personnel desperate for a paying job (Blackwater has a recruitment center in the Philippines).

Foreign mercenaries are typically paid much less than their American counterparts. One firm pays Filipino mercenaries $60,000-$80,000 a year, half of what it pays American mercenaries with equivalent qualifications and for the same assignments (although this is still more than the salaries of most active duty U.S. military personnel).

But it is ultimately the U.S. taxpayer who foots the bill, as illustrated by the following scenario reported by Sonni Efron with comments from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) (Los Angeles Times, July 2005). The U.S. government has funded “Plan Colombia”, a counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics program that includes training and support for the Colombian police and military. We have been training foreign nationals – who then take that training and market it to private companies, who pay them three or four times as much as we are paying soldiers. American taxpayers are paying for the training of those Colombian soldiers. When they leave to take more lucrative jobs, perhaps with an American military contractor, they take that training with them. So then we are paying to train that person's replacement. And then we are paying the bill to the private military contractors.

The fact that U.S. firms recruit foreign nationals does not sit well with their home countries. South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act prohibits South African citizens from direct participation as a combatant in armed conflict for private gain. Michelle Bachelet, Chile's defense minister, has ordered an investigation into whether such recruitment is legal under Chilean laws. And, Blackwater's recruitment activities in the Philippines have triggered severe criticism and massive protests there.

* Footnote: Blackwater USA has a 6,000 acre para-military training facility as part of its corporate headquarters, in Moyock, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia border. This training center was founded in 1996 to fulfill the “anticipated demand” for government outsourcing of firearms and related security training. Blackwater has trained more than 50,000 military and law enforcement personnel. The firm also has additional offices in Baghdad, Iraq, and Kuwait City, Kuwait.


Bill Berkowitz, “Mercenaries ‘R’ Us”, AlterNet, March 24, 2004.

Amy Goodman, “Our mercenaries in Iraq: Interview with Jeremy Scahill”, Democracy Now! January 26th, 2007.

Mark Hemingway, “Warriors for Hire: Blackwater USA and the rise of private military contractors”, Weekly Standard, v. 012(14), December 18, 2006.

Jeremy Scahill, “Our mercenaries in Iraq” Op Ed, Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2007.

Sourcewatch: A project of the Center for Media & Democracy

Ann Scott Tyson, “Private Security Workers Living On Edge in Iraq”, Washington Post, April 23, 2005.

Photo credits:

Private Security Near Landcruiser

Blackwater USA Helicopter: Agence France Presse—Getty Images.


nocturnal scribe said...

Excellent post. May I link to or quote you? I do repeat subjects at times as I feel like some cannot be emphasized enough. These mercenaries worry me. Foreigners usually cannot distinguish contractor civilians from military, and consequently blame all ill behavior on "Americans". Our own troops, usually young and rather foolish, do enough to alienate the foreigners, plus their rage and hatred at civilian casualties and destruction of property.

It also concerns me that Bush has used these mercenaries in the U.S., notably in New Orleans, instead of more units of National Guards. I believe this sets a bad precedent if Bush or another president feels it necessary to declare martial law in the U.S. or other real or invented "emergency".

Thank you for visiting my blog. Sitemeter reveals that I do have visitors but it is rare for anyone to comment. All too often visitors merely do a search for IEDs and violence. I hope that some also read some of the posts.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I like about right-wing publications. They can have really honest gems, like this one from the Weekly Standard referenced in this essay.

Chris Taylor of Blackwater says, "One of the single greatest factors that makes us who we are today is ... this facility--this is the greatest barrier to entry in the market of doing training and security operations; nobody else has this." Taylor continues: "To build this facility today--$40 or $50 million, and nobody's got that kind of coin. Nobody wants to invest that, especially if you are going into a market where there already is a big dog."

In other words, for the free market fundamentalists out there, Taylor is describing a market failure, i.e., a barrier to market entry. Sounds like a potential monopoly to me.

The US Department of Justice Antitrust Division should investigate them. We should contact them:

Contact the US DOJ Antitrust Division

Anonymous said...

It's a Start

Dear xxxxxxxxx

Thank you for contacting the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Citizen Complaint Center has reviewed your complaint, and though we understand your concerns, we have determined that the information provided does not warrant further review by the Division at this time. We have your information on file and should the legal staff need further information, they may contact you in the future.

We appreciate your interest in the enforcement of the federal antitrust laws and we wish you the best in resolving your concerns.

Citizen Complaint Center
Antitrust Division
Department of Justice

Anonymous said...

L. Vincent Sebastian nailed this one, folks. We taxpayers foot the bill to train and field these mercs two-, often three-times over. And Bush's and Cheney's buddies are the ones pocketing the profits. How many shares of Blackwater do you own? How about Carlyle Group?

As "The Fighting Quaker" General Smedley D. Butler once said: "War is just a racket." How right he was.

--Col. Gordon McTeer (ret.)

P.S. Far as I know, no private military contractor has ever had to take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, unlike the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.