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Guns for hire

Andrea Laidman | Monday, October 15, 2007

Great Britain’s decision last week to cut their troops in Iraq in half by spring raises questions about the composition of forces on the ground in Iraq.

The United Kingdom will decrease their deployment from 5,000 to 2,500 in the coming months, with the possibility of future reductions throughout 2008.

This move emphasizes again the role of outsourcing and contracting in the Iraq war: Private security guards now make up the second largest “force” in Iraq, and the British reductions only further cement the centrality of security firms.

The Pentagon estimates there are 60 private security firms with as many as 25,000 employees in Iraq (this is in addition to 100,000 civilian contractors working to rebuild the nation).

Last Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended the decision of British officials to remove half of the 5,000 British troops in Iraq by spring. Gates, speaking in London, said that Britain remained “America’s closest ally” and portrayed the British decision as a “joint agreement” with full consent and support of the U.S. He said the troop reduction and plans for the future size and role of British troops had been “closely worked out” with Gen. David Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq.

When announcing the halving of troops to the House of Commons last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown left open the possibility that all British soldiers might leave Iraq by the end of 2008.

This possibility of continuing reductions or the complete withdrawal of British troops was not addressed by Gates in London.

As British troops are sent home from Iraq and their number drops to 2,500, it is possible that the next year could see a single security firm with more troops on the ground than any nation besides the United States.

The current dominant firm in Iraq is Blackwater, a company that, according to an Oct. 1 report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has seen incredible growth since the start of the war.

The report stated: “Blackwater’s government contracts have grown exponentially during the Bush Administration, particularly since the start of the war in Iraq. Blackwater went from having government contracts worth less than a million dollars in 2001 to contracts worth more than half a billion dollars in 2006.”

In June 2004, Blackwater was authorized to have about 500 staff in Iraq. That number doubled in their 2006 contract with the State Department. The Dept. also simultaneously authorized two other companies, Triple Canopy and DynCorp, contracts to provide security in Iraq.

Blackwater, now the focus of investigations in both Baghdad and Washington following questions about civilian deaths in a Sept. 16 incident, leads firms in personnel on the ground. According to CEO Erik Prince, they maintain 1,000 operators in Iraq, primarily engaged in guarding U.S. diplomats. Triple Canopy has about 250 security guards in Iraq; DynCorp has just over 150.

It seems commercial mercenaries have become, at least numerically, our largest ally in the war in Iraq.

What does this say about the readiness of our non-hired allies – many of whom have already withdrawn troops, or, like the UK, begun major reduction plans – to continue to fight in Iraq?

How will the US continue to sustain a war that is straining forces in Iraq and separating soldiers from their families for overly extended periods?

Moreover, what do these numbers say about the character of our war in Iraq? The United States has been against the use of mercenaries since the Revolutionary War, when the British used 30,000 German Hessians to try to stop American forces.

By spring, there will be 2,500 British troops in Iraq, and about 1,500 privately-hired mercenary forces from Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp alone.

The Pentagon’s increasing reliance on outsourcing military functions in Iraq raises important questions about accountability and the chain of command. These private guards are without the direction of the U.S. military, yet in 2004, an order signed by American officials exempted US personnel – including private security – from Iraqi law.

The Sept. 16 incident that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead has outraged the public and the government in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has demanded that the company be banned from operating in their country. Iraqi officials have stressed that in addition to the Sept. 16 shooting, Blackwater employees have been involved in six other episodes under investigation – all contributing to the civilian death count in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is also proposing a measure that would overturn the American order exempting Western private security companies.

The measure holds the companies and their personnel accountable when Iraqi law is breached and civilians are injured or killed by unnecessary shooting and violence.

The events following the Sept. 16 shooting indicate that the presence of private security firms like Blackwater is not making Iraq safer, but is serving instead to counteract progress made by the U.S. military and our diplomatic relations with the Iraqi government and its people.

It is unclear how the current questions over the Sept. 16 incident and the greater debate over the authority, regulation and accountability of private security forces in Iraq will be resolved. But as governments continue to pull out of Iraq and security on the ground does not improve, evidenced by increases in private security contracts, these issues must become a priority in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political science and peace studies major. Her column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.