Sunday, October 14, 2007

Private Security Companies in Iraq

Since Blackwater and private security is in the news right now, I thought I would add my two cents. From what I have read, it sounds to me like there was excessive force used.

The initial engagement is probably justified: Blackwater is paid to protect convoys from vehicle borne IEDs, and US military convoys would likely fire in similar situations. Unless the requirement for convoys is to wait until a car blows up, there is no way to be certain that a vehicle is a carbomb…you simply have to rely on the Iraqis to comply with the warnings to maintain a safe distance from the convoy, and use escalation of force to provide ample warnings…but at some point you have to stop the vehicle before it can blow up your convoy.

When the event mushroomed up to cause the deaths of 17 people, however, it sounds like a failure to control fire. Realistically the only time it is justified to fire is when you can positively identify the threat, but even then there needs to be a genuine risk if there are civilians in the area. Armored convoy vehicles are vulnerable to IED's car bombs, and RPG's, but are fairly well protected against small arms fire at 7.62 and below. Simply being engaged by small arms would not justify risking and killing unarmed civilians. In most cases, you can simply drive away. Since there is no evidence that anyone fired at the convoy, I don't think the rest of the engagement can be justified.

However, the Blackwater incident is not typical of private security contractors. I work with a couple private security companies, and the men I work with are professional, rational, and necessary.

For the most part they do work that would otherwise require a US soldier, but either the job is completely within the Green Zone such as guarding interior gates, is security for other private contractors delivering goods for the military or civilian agencies, or security for agencies seeking to distance themselves from the military such as the State Department or USAID. Some also provide personal security for General officers because there are not enough trained soldiers available (there are few trained PSD soldiers in the army, and they are in great demand).

Contractors are not allowed to take part in offensive operations, and can only use force for defense. They are limited to 7.62 or below for live rounds. To put that in context, my teams do not go out of the Green Zone without at least 2 mounted .50 caliber machine guns. The Blackwater bullets would not stop my truck: my bullets would cut theirs to ribbons. These guys are taking similar risks to US soldiers, but with far less protection.

One of the teams I work with has been in country for 3 years, and has not had a fatal incident despite traveling throughout the country as a Personal Security Detail for general officers. They have been engaged twice where they returned fire. The other team conducts interior security within the base and provides an excellent service for far less than it would cost to have soldiers do the work (and there are not enough soldiers available to do it anyway). When I go to sleep at night, Peruvian contractors are protecting me (the Green Zone is about 5 square miles, BIAP about 40 square miles: the exterior gates are manned by US and Iraqi troops, but interior patrols are mostly contractors, as well as most entry control points for interior FOB's.)

I think it would be a shame to paint all of the contractors over here doing hard, dangerous work with the same brush as the possible criminals involved in the Blackwater event. Assuming the Blackwater guys were wrong, that is a small number of the estimated 30,000 security contractors here. Most security contractors have shown significant restraint in a place with random violence, and since their job is generally one that requires they protect a person, place, or thing from that violence, the fact that the incidents are relatively rare indicates that most are following the use of force guidelines.

For the most part these contractors are keeping soldiers available for offensive operations. Most are doing very boring jobs for very low pay ($1,000/month or less). Those who go outside protected areas are paid well, but have resumes and skills that support the pay. Without them we would have effectively 30,000 fewer soldiers in country because their jobs would be performed by soldiers instead. We certainly need to ensure they are answerable to the law, but it would be foolish to eliminate them based on an event that could just as easily have happened with soldiers instead.

One of the intangible benefits of private security in that role is that they are not subject to military protocol, so there is no chance for a sergeant working a security detail to have a run-in with a senior soldier who tries to make him do something else. Sometimes well meaning leaders will not realize the soldier is involved in escort detail, and can distract the soldier from his mission. The contractors have no such responsibility, and can safely ignore anyone other than their boss.

As we drawdown, the role of contractors will go up...they will just be paid by the Iraqis instead of us (it is actually kind of funny to listen to the Iraqi leaders complain about security contractors when they use private contractors too.) Because despite being generally foreigners, at least contractors are not suspected of being part of the ethnic strife, and therefore can generally help Iraq while it tries to integrate factions.

We like the contractors that we work with, and trust them. They work hard and are good at what they do. We especially appreciate that they relieve us of doing duties that soldiers hate, like gate guard.

I think it is reasonable to debate the use/role of security contractors as a policy, we just need to know what it would mean to remove them all. I think it would be detrimental and require more US forces than we currently have available, but there may be some way to replace them without overwhelming the military personnel system…like maybe making a lot of Navy seamen gate guards. It would cost more, because those contractors are paid less than soldiers based on the simplicity and relative safety of their jobs, but as a policy matter it might be worth it.

The problem is that the high cost contractors can not be replaced with soldiers or sailors with simply minimal additional training: they are high cost because they have special skills that take a long time to learn and perfect. An army security detail that we trained at Fort Riley took 90 days to learn the basics. They are good at their job, but simply don't have the experience that most high cost contractors have. Very high profile leaders like Petreaus and the US ambassador really do need to have the best security we can provide, not some randomly assigned soldiers with some security training.


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