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An Assessment of the Private Military Industry and its Role in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

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An Assessment of the Private Military Industry and its Role in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Naiomi Gonzalez

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required the support of the private military industry. However, the United States government’s increased reliance and dependency on private military firms has not been without controversy. In fact, the lack of accountability that has allowed certain sectors of the private military industry to act with impunity have arguably complicated the U.S. military’s already difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the United States government’s increased reliance on private military firms to the forefront[1]. During the Vietnam War, it is estimated that there was 1 contractor for every 55 uniformed military personnel. In Iraq the ratio has hovered around 1 contractor for every 1 military personnel and in Afghanistan the number is 1.43 for every 1 military personnel[2]. During specific time periods, the number of contractors has even surpassed that of uniformed military personnel[3].

Private military firms undoubtedly provide much needed services and therefore, should not be discounted for their services. Private military firms, for instance, can draw on a large pool of expertise in a variety of fields while the military is limited by who they can recruit. This private military firm manpower flexibility is particularly important as technology continues to develop at a rapid pace. The Department of Defense (DoD), like most other government agencies, already heavily relies on the private sector to meet many of its technological needs. For example, the DoD has close relationships with many commercial agencies and contractors in order to develop and maintain the latest computer systems. If the DoD were to focus on developing their own computer systems, it would take about seven years for it to become operational. By that time the system would be obsolete and the efforts a waste[4]. For the DoD, which is often inundated by numerous other concerns and responsibilities, it makes sense to team up with private enterprises whose expertise lie in remaining on the cutting edge of new technological advances. Likewise, when it comes to maintaining the military’s vast and increasingly sophisticated technological arsenal, it benefits the DoD to hire contractors who already have years of experience on using and maintaining these specialized weapon rather than rely on military technicians who are most likely not trained in the nuances of a specific piece of equipment[5].

Another benefit of using contractors is that they provide a degree of political flexibility that enables political and military leaders to engage in policies the larger American citizenry might find objectionable. For instance, since the Vietnam War, Americans have shown a disdain for large scale conflicts that result in a large number of U.S. military causalities[6]. This low tolerance for long, drawn out wars became more pronounced as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, year after year. However, this aversion to American casualties does not always extend to those working as contractors, especially if those contractors are locals or third-world nationals. Because their roles in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is not always obvious, contractor deaths and injuries usually attract little attention. Exceptions to this disinterest usually center on particularly vicious deaths or injuries[7]. While not a panacea for increasingly unpopular wars, the use of contractors, especially in place of uniformed military personnel, ensures that extended conflicts remain palpable to the American public for a longer period of time.

However, the use of private military firms also comes with some severe drawbacks. On the economic front, their cost-effectiveness is in doubt. By 2012 the U.S. had spent about $232.2 billion on contractors and about $60 billion had been lost as a result of waste, fraud and abuse on the part of the contractors[8].

Much more concerning is the lack of accountability and impunity that has plagued the industry. In April 2004, CBS News published photographs showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American personnel. While media focus centered on uniformed American personnel who were abusing prisoners and on their courts martial, contractors also played a role in the scandal. Two private military firms, Titan[9] and CACI provided all of the translators and about half of the interrogators involved in the abuse case[10]. Yet no contractor was held legally responsible for their role in the abuse.

Private military provider/security firms have their own unique sets of issues and problems. While they make up the smallest number of contractors[11], the controversy they provoke belies their relatively small numbers. Blackwater Security[12] was the most notorious of these private military provider firms.

The 2007 Nisour Square case involving Blackwater helped spur the wider American population to question the utility of private provider/security firms. On September 16, 2007, Blackwater contractors shot, killed, and injured dozens of Iraqi civilians, in what they claimed was an act of self-defense[13].” The killings provoked widespread outrage. The Iraq government claimed, “The murder of citizens in cold blood…by Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against civilians[14]…” At that time, questions arose regarding whether private provider firms aid or hinder the United States’ mission in Iraq. Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that the provider firms’ singular focus on completing their mission, can at times mean that they are working “at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq[15].”

This obsession with ensuring that they complete their assigned task, no matter their costs, can be attributed to the for-profit nature of the companies and the personnel they hire, many of whom have a mission-focused mindset from their former military experiences. Before the Nisour Square incident, Blackwater took pride in its ability to get the job done, no matter what. Such a mindset ensured its success and profitability. However, the Nisour Square episode forced contractors, the government and the public at large to doubt the utility of such a mindset, especially when it results in the deaths of civilians, which only inflames anti-American sentiment. It is difficult to win “hearts and minds” by killing civilians. Moreover, the process of holding the contractors legally responsible for civilian deaths has met with many obstacles. The legal cases against four contractors involved in the Nisour Square incident has dragged on for years[16] while mainstream media attention has faded.

Private military firms have played vital roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their roles will only continue to expand. However, the U.S. government’s increased dependency on private military firms has not been without controversy or problems. These problems and controversies have hindered rather than aided the U.S. in completing their already difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

End Notes

[1] Peter W. Singer divides private military firms into three groups: military provider firms (aka private security firms), military consulting firms, and military support firms. While in some cases it is clear which firms fall into what category, in other cases the lines are more blurred as some companies take on a variety of roles. For an in-depth explanation of the different groups see Singer, P. W. (2008). Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press

[2] Taylor, W. A. (2016). Military Service and American Democracy: From World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (pg. 172) Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

[3] For instance, during the third quarter of fiscal year 2008, there were 162,428 total contractors in Iraq, compared to 153,300 uniformed military personnel. In Afghanistan the contrast in numbers is much more pronounced. During the fourth quarter of the 2009 fiscal year there were 104,101 total contractors compared to 62,300 uniformed personnel. See Peters, H. M., & Plagakis, S. (2019, May 10). Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44116.html

[4] Ettinger, A. (2016). The Patterns, Implications, and Risks of American Military Contracting. In S. V. Hlatky & H. C. Breede (Eds.), Going to War?: Trends in Military Interventions (pp. 115-132). Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stanger, A., & Williams, M. E. (Fall/Winter 2006). Private Military Corporations: Benefits and Costs of Outsourcing Security. Yale Journal of International Affairs, 4-19.

[7] For instance, on March 31, 2004 four Blackwater contractors were killed, dismembered and their body parts paraded through the streets of Fallujah. Blackwater faced criticism for its decision to send only four contractors instead of six into an incredibly hostile part of Iraq in jeeps that were armored only with one steel plate. See In Re: BlackWater Security Consulting LCC, http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/051949.P.pdf 1-28 (United Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit 2006).

[8] Taylor, 117. This number is most likely an undercount.

[9] In 2005 Titan was acquired by L3 Communications. See Staff, SSI. “L-3 Communications Agrees to Merger With Titan Corp.” Security Sales & Integration, Security Sales & Integration, 7 June 2005, www.securitysales.com/news/l-3-communications-agrees-to-merger-with-titan-corp/.

[10] Singer, P. (2005, April). Outsourcing War. Retrieved May 24, 2019, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2005-03-01/outsourcing-war.

[11] The number of private military provider/security firms peaked in Iraq at 15,000 individuals and in 2012 at 28,000. See Peters, H. M., & Plagakis, S. (2019, May 10). Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44116.html

[12] Blackwater was eventually sold and it underwent numerous name changes. It is currently called Academi. See Ukman, J. (2011, December 12). Ex-Blackwater Firm gets a Name Change, Again. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/ex-blackwater-firm-gets-a-name-change-again/2011/12/12/gIQAXf4YpO_blog.html

[13] A subsequent FBI investigation found the shooting to be unjustified. See Johnston, D., & Broder, J. M. (2007, November 14). F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause. Retrieved May 27, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/world/middleeast/14blackwater.html

[14] Tolchin, M., & Tolchin, S. J. (2016). Pinstripe patronage: Political favoritism from the clubhouse to the White House and beyond. Pg. 183 London, UK: Routledge.

[15] Spiegel, P. (2007, October 19). Gates: U.S., Guards are at Odds in Iraq. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-oct-19-na-blackwater19-story.html

[16] See Collins, M. (2018, December 19). Former Blackwater Guard Convicted of Instigating Mass Shooting in Iraq. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/12/19/iraq-war-jury-convicts-ex-blackwater-guard-second-time-massacre/1941149002/

About the Author(s)

Naiomi Gonzalez is currently a doctoral student in history at Texas Christian University. She can be found on twitter at @AmericanUnInte1.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Comments

From the second to last paragraph of our article above:

BEGIN QUOTE

This obsession with ensuring that they complete their assigned task, no matter their costs, can be attributed to the for-profit nature of the companies and the personnel they hire, many of whom have a mission-focused mindset from their former military experiences. Before the Nisour Square incident, Blackwater took pride in its ability to get the job done, no matter what. Such a mindset ensured its success and profitability. However, the Nisour Square episode forced contractors, the government and the public at large to doubt the utility of such a mindset, especially when it results in the deaths of civilians, which only inflames anti-American sentiment. It is difficult to win “hearts and minds” by killing civilians. ...

END QUOTE

Given the "hearts and minds" consideration noted above, which in turn should cause us to consider such things as the role of the private military industry; this:

a.  More from the "nation-building" perspective and, thus,

b.  More from the perspective of the "other warriors," to wit: the social scientists, who advocated various ways and means to achieve our nation-building goals.

In this regard, the below excerpt -- relating to the Vietnam War in this case -- may prove useful: 

BEGIN QUOTE

The Other Warriors: American Social Science and Nation Building in Vietnam:

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara once described World War I as a chemist’s war and World War II as a physicist’s war; Vietnam, he said, “might well have to be considered the social scientists’ war.”  This observation might seem questionable to those who see U.S. involvement in Indochina primarily as a misguided exercise in attrition warfare, with American material and technological prowess pitted against the superior willpower, political insight, and organizational acumen of the Communist Vietnamese.  But as recent scholarship on the Vietnam War reminds us, there was an “other war” in Vietnam, a war to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese, and it was far from onesided.  Enterprising American and South Vietnamese officials – like Edward Lansdale, John Paul Vann, Victor Krulak, George Tanham, Robert Komer, and Nygyen Be – worked hard to raise the status of this “other war” in the eyes of allied policymakers, and they had the backing of social scientists from elite American universities and research institutions, many of whom worked for the U.S. government. Not only did their studies and reports on nation building and counterinsurgency influence the development of U.S. policy with regard to the “other war” in South Vietnam, but they provided the intellectual basis for America’s complex and problematic strategy of managing political change in the Third World that continues to intrigue a significant portion of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

This article attempts to capture some of the complexity of social science thinking on the subject of nation building and counterinsurgency in the context of South Vietnam. “Other warriors” who stressed the primacy of the Vietnamese village, community values, traditional leadership, collective endeavors, civic responsibility, and local autonomy drew their inspiration from America’s conservative populist tradition as well as from the “moral economy” model of development associated with followers of nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim.  In competition with this view of Vietnamese politics and society was a liberal nationalist vision (à la John Locke and John Stuart Mill) that favored national over local and communal allegiances, focused on economic opportunity and the individual’s desire for material enrichment and increased social status, promoted the development of voluntary political-economic associations and the rule of law, and supported the establishment of an AngloAmerican constitutional system to represent and balance Vietnam’s various national interests.  Somewhat at odds with the foregoing conceptions of nation building was a Weberian bureaucratic authoritarian model of government that emphasized administrative efficiency, military and civil service professionalism, “scientific” management principles and quantifiable goals, centralized planning and supervision, and the extension of Government of Vietnam (GVN) control from the capital to all regions and localities in the country. 

Although shifts of theoretical focus and influence occurred throughout the nearly twenty-year period under investigation, no one school of nation building achieved permanent ascendancy during the Vietnam era ...

END QUOTE  

(American Social Science and Nation Building in Vietnam by J.P. Marquis)

Bottom Line Questions -- Based on the Above:

Would it be incorrect to suggest that -- much as in the Vietnam War -- in our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also -- the "other warriors" -- to wit: the social scientists and their various theories -- played an important role?  And, this:

a.  Specifically as relates such things as "nation-building?" And this:

b.  Specifically as relates to the "hearts and minds" requirement therein?

(Herein, for example, to consider that the exact same three social scientist theories -- noted in my quoted item above -- these may well have been considered/may well have played an important role in our recent conflicts also?)

If such is the case -- or if other social science theories were used in our most recent conflict -- then:

a.  Possibly such matters as An Assessment of the Private Military Industry and its Role in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) and

b.  Other matters relating to the "hearts and minds" component of the "nation-building" task should:  

c.  Be considered re:/should be "bounced against" (a) these such "other warriors" and (b) their such "nation-building"/social science theories?

Warlock

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 10:26am

"Another benefit of using contractors is that they provide a degree of political flexibility that enables political and military leaders to engage in policies the larger American citizenry might find objectionable."

A benefit to whom?  As cover for political leaders seeking to conduct war on the cheap by avoiding the fiscal and political costs of increases in end-strength and/or general mobilization, which might involve publically taking a position that jeopardizes their re-election? 

There are roles for contractors (and civil service personnel) in the combat zone.  Specialists with difficult to maintain, perishable skills.  Advisors and trainers with knowledge and experience that might otherwise be lost.  And there are many contractors and civil service employees in those roles.  But use of civilians -- especially contractors -- as surrogate for combat and security troops creates problems on the battlefield.