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Excessive reliance on private security hurts Iraq effort Print
“We can’t blame the contractors. We blame our officials for this. We blame the American government. They’re working here under the authority of the Iraqi government. They did not come here without authority.”

— a witness, identified only as “Muhammad,” after a shooting by hired security agents on a Baghdad street

THIS BAGHDAD RESIDENT is pointing out something that should be heeded in Washington: The United States rightly is held responsible for the actions of private security firms in Iraq. It’s time for the U.S. government to embrace that responsibility — and protect its Iraq mission by reining the private armies in.

Private security firms such as Blackwater are contracted to do all sorts of work in Iraq, notably protection of VIPs. Their staffers, numbering in the thousands, often work alongside U.S. and coalition forces. But they don’t operate under the same rules as U.S. forces, and they often set out without access to the same intelligence as U.S. forces. That brings trouble.

The Iraqi government has had enough of Blackwater’s work. In the wake of recent, apparently unprovoked, shootings of civilians, it is pressuring the United States to revoke Blackwater’s right to work in the country. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered a review of the security rules for State Department employees in Iraq. Given the widespread use of such bodyguards, that’s not enough.

Differing missions are the problem. The U.S. military, under Gen. David Petraeus’ direction, is pursuing basic counterinsurgency strategy: Win by winning over the populace. Base the troops right alongside them, restore security block by block, and cooperate to solve local problems, and thereby enlist local help. The mission of private bodyguards is: Protect the VIP, first and foremost. If guns have to be shoved into the faces of bystanders, or guards must shoot at approaching vehicles first and ask questions later, so be it. Or ask questions never; one report to Congress says many shootings of civilians have gone unreported; the freelance gunmen simply roar away in their SUVs.

These two missions, military and private, are in fundamental conflict. U.S. Rep. John Tierney even quoted Gen. Petraeus’ doctrine at a hearing about the problem: “Counterinsurgents that use excessive force to limit short-term risk alienate the local populace.”

The private security groups also drain a precious resource from the military effort: some of the best personnel. Blackwater was formed by ex-Navy SEALs, and the groups lure the best-trained troops out of the services with promises of higher pay — not to mention less government bureaucracy and oversight. At a time when the U.S. armed forces struggle to fill the ranks and need every experienced hand, this competition works against the national interest.

Some in Congress have tried to rein in the security firms, with a bill to allows their operatives to be prosecuted in U.S. criminal courts for offenses committed overseas. While the impulse is laudable, the civilian courts seem inadequate to the task.

A better fix is a long-term one: Congress needs to end reliance on such contract security agencies. That would be difficult, given our shrunken military and increased reliance on the free-lancers. They will be lobbying for more and more contracts. But much of this work belongs where it used to reside: under the command of the U.S. military, and in line with our national goals.
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