October 4, 2007

PW Singer's Hair is on Fire: On Blackwater and Private Military Companies

A Salon.com article by PW Singer on the problem of Private Military Companies such as Blackwater forced my hand. I had been meaning to blog about this topic since news of the Sept. 16 incident involving Blackwater came to light. The article provided the prompting I needed.

Let me say at the outset that the article was very good and I generally agree with his main point--the US Government has a significant dependence on private contractors--and some of his more minor points, like the inherent conflict between the motivations of private contractors and the mission of the armed forces in Iraq. But Singer lacks nuance, his analysis is incomplete, and his conclusions are shaky.

One example is this paragraph:

When we evaluate the facts, the use of private military contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped, the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq, going against our best doctrine and undermining critical efforts of our troops. Even worse, the government can no longer carry out one of its most basic core missions: to fight and win the nation's wars. Instead, the massive outsourcing of military operations has created a dependency on private firms like Blackwater that has given rise to dangerous vulnerabilities.

Private military contractors have harmed some counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. This is quite different than what Singer suggests. The real culprits here are not the contractors but the US Government and US Military leadership, largely because they failed to develop an adequate counterinsurgency strategy until just this year--four years into the war! Blaming military contractors for the counterinsurgency problems in Iraq is just misplaced blame.

Further, private military contractors have helped the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq significantly because, quite frankly, there are not enough forces to do everything that needs to be done. If you think the war is going bad now, you could only imagine how bad it would be if there were no military contractors in Iraq.

Who would transport military supplies around Iraq? Who would train Iraqi units? Who would translate for line units conducting patrols? How would our intelligence agencies get enough interrogators and analysts? How would our diplomats, spies, and other non-military US Government personnel travel around the country if they didn't have contractor-provided security?

To do all of these things without military contractors means that US military forces would have to take on these missions in much greater capacities than what they do know. This means that there would be fewer forces to do the core mission: clearing neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, holding the neighborhoods until Iraqi forces can relieve US forces, and moving on to the next neighborhood.

Admittedly, contractors like some Blackwater operators have not helped the hearts and minds campaign in some areas of Iraq. This was evident to me when I was over there and I witnessed first hand some of their very aggressive tactics. They are also a pain in the ass of military commanders who are responsible for areas in which Blackwater operates, but they also provide valuable services that need to be done. Singer, it seems, recognizes this without admitting it when he talks of government dependency on private military contractors.

There are other parts of his article that are off base, such the whole "Abrams Doctrine" discussion (irrelevant because different force structures of the post-Vietnam and the present-day Armies make this "doctrine" unworkable), his callousness when talking about contractor deaths, and his persistent insinuations that military contractors are somehow to blame for the lack of counterinsurgency success.

Here's one paragraph indicative of Singer's misplaced blame:

Basically, the bigger the bases, the more fast-food franchises, the more salsa dance lessons -- and the more money the firms make, while wrapping themselves in the flag. But while bigger bases may yield more money for stockholders, they disconnect a force from the local populace and send a message of a long-term occupation, both major negatives in a counterinsurgency. Moreover, it puts more convoys on the roads, angering the Iraqis and creating more potential targets for insurgents. "It's misguided luxury ... Somebody's risking their life to deliver that luxury," Hammes says, adding, "Fewer vehicles on the road creates less tension with the locals, because they get tired of these high-speed convoys running them off the road."

In this passage Singer correctly diagnoses the counterinsurgency problem of big bases (disconnect the force from the local populace...message of long-term occupation), but he conveniently ignores that such issues associated with military basing are strategic and lay solely within the domain of military planners. Thus, this problem is exclusively the fault of the US military and civilian leaders, not the contractors. The contractors will build and sustain to the contract specifications. It's up to the military to decide how big and how secure and how comfortable they want the bases to be.

Here's another similar passage:

The formula for failure isn't hard to calculate. An Iraqi is driving in Baghdad, on his way to work. A convoy of black-tinted SUVs comes down the highway at him, driving in his lane, but in the wrong direction. They are honking their horns at the oncoming traffic and firing machine gun bursts into the road, in front of any vehicle that gets too close. The Iraqi veers to the side of the road. As the SUVs drive by, Western-looking men in sunglasses point machine guns at him. Over the course of the day, that Iraqi civilian might tell X people about how "the Americans almost killed me today, and all I was doing was trying to get to work." Y is the number of other people that convoy ran off the road on its run that day. Z is the number of convoys in Iraq that day. Multiply X times Y times Z times 365, and you have the mathematical equation of how to lose a counterinsurgency within a year.

Again, there are many ways to lose a counterinsurgency and while the aggressive driving techniques do contribute to ill feelings towards Americans this is hardly the reason why we would lose a counterinsurgency (disclaimer: I have ridden in convoys that employed very aggressive driving tactics, but our security personnel doing the driving where Iraqis, not Americans). Some better reasons would be the failure to establish security immediately following the fall of Baghdad, or the failure to secure the borders, or the disbanding of the Iraqi military, or the piss-poor post-conflict planning.

One of the things I was worried about when the shooting incident happened was that military contractors were going to be scapegoated. Blackwater is, in fact, the perfect scapegoat. Not only are they offensively aggressive and have a cowboy reputation, they also afford the Iraqi government and the US military an opportunity to deflect the spotlight for the quagmire that is Iraq. I am not defending their aggressive tactics and, as I stated earlier, I believe that they have been bad for some aspects of our fight in Iraq, but they should not be thrown under the bus either.

While the military contractors should be held accountable for crimes and civilian deaths, ultimate blame for the consequences of the use of contractors falls upon the US Government. The downsizing of the military following Desert Storm and maintained by the Clinton and Bush administrations left the Services and bureaucracies little choice but to use contractors in virtually every capacity. At the same time, the government also failed to develop clear policies, regulations, and laws to manage and control the activities of the contractors, resulting the gray area in which they now operate.

No comments: