Why So Many Mercenaries in Iraq?
Just now it’s Blackwater USA that’s in the spotlight due to the shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead on September 16, and a history of being more aggressive than most in their duties of guarding U.S. diplomats and other various hangers-on. The Iraqi government, in a development that just might presage its coming together into something resembling a real government, seems united behind a demand that Blackwater contracts be ended and its personnel shipped out of the country forthwith. Whether that will happen or not is up in the air. It’s more than possible that the state Department, with which Blackwater has its contract, has no Plan B for guarding diplomats that could be implemented in a reasonable amount of time.
But Blackwater is just the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that there are about 130,000 people employed by private contractors working in Iraq, compared to about 160,000 military personnel. There have been private contractors providing various kinds of support services in prior wars – providing food services, supply depots, protective or guard services and the like – and it just might make a certain amount of sense to use them. Much of what an army requires to move – on its stomach, as Napoleon once put it – has little relationship to direct or even indirect combat. In the days of the draft it was all right to have draftees peeling potatoes or cleaning latrines, but with an all-volunteer force it makes sense to have civilians doing jobs that civilians can do effectively.
But a ratio of almost one-to-one between private contractors and uniformed personnel may be unique in modern warfare. This reliance on private contractors – growing to a certain extent from an ideological presumption in favor of privatization that began to take root during Dick Cheney’s tenure as Defense Secretary and pursued with similar vigor by former Secretary Rumsfeld – has happened rather quickly, and in some cases it seems to have been more error than trial.
To a great extent the need for private contractors has also been fed by the reduction in the number of military personnel that took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and by Don Rumsfeld’s desire to have a smaller, lean-and-mean military. A smaller military might well make sense in the kind of environment most people – those who did not expect decades of sweetness and light – expected in the wake of the death of formal communism: a world where small garrisons would be needed in various places, along with a swift-reaction force that could deploy quickly and put down minor brushfires.
But the U.S. military has turned out not to be big enough for the tasks required of it in the occupation and subduing of Iraq. So, unless an unexpected rash of common sense breaks out in the halls of the administration and we begin withdrawing relatively quickly, there will be a perceived need for private contractors to supplement the uniformed military.
Several developments during the past week add to the impression, voiced by former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, among others, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the U.S. military to the breaking point. Fixing it will require a period of surcease from active combat – time to absorb lessons learned from recent conflicts. Whether world conditions or our political leadership will make this possible is an open question.
Last week the Pentagon announced that it is paying cash bonuses of up to $35,000 to younger officers who re-enlist, an expense made necessary by the alarming number who are deciding to leave the service after Iraq. The Marines are lobbying to leave Iraq and assume primary responsibility for Afghanistan. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech that called for a radical restructuring of the Army, from training and personnel policies to its basic mission.
All this comes on the heels of the announcement that Gen. David Petraeus, our top commander in Iraq, is recommending that the number of troops in Iraq be reduced modestly by next summer, to pre-"surge" levels. This was hardly surprising because, regardless of success or lack of it on the ground in Iraq, there are simply not enough troops available to keep as many as are there now in Iraq for a sustained period of time.
The mission in Iraq has required reserves and National Guard members to be called up to an unexpected degree, weakening them for their more normal missions. Service members have been issued "stop-loss" orders, requiring them to stay in uniform a while longer, just before their enlistment was due to expire. Equipment is taking a terrible beating in Iraq’s harsh weather and combat environment. And some domestic police forces are coping with shortages of firing-range bullets due to demand from the Iraq war.
Secretary Gates’s speech to the Association of the Army last Wednesday presaged further changes. He predicted that future wars are likely to be what military jargonists call "asymmetric" – fought against highly mobile and adaptable guerrilla, irregular and terrorist adversaries. The army traditionally has been trained for and is highly proficient at large-scale army-on-army conventional battles, but secretary Gates thinks that will have to change.
"Arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries," Secretary Gates said. "The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police – once the province of Special Forces – is now a key mission for the military as a whole."
Insofar as the U.S. is determined to remain militarily engaged around the world rather than opting for a more modest and less interventionist foreign policy, Secretary Gates is probably right. But he may not have time even to get a good start on such reforms – which will meet with plenty of bureaucratic inertia and resistance – during the short time in office remaining to him.
If the Iraq war winds down reasonably soon there may be time to reconfigure the military to meet the challenges of a world with all too many jihadists and terrorists seeking to damage the United States. Otherwise a great deal of improvisation will be required – and we’ve seen how well that worked during the early stages of the occupation of Iraq. In the meantime expect a lot of private contractors to operate in Iraq as well.
However, Justin Raimondo using quote marks around the word “private” in his piece on Blackwater reminded me of a factor I haven’t yet written about. Government contractors can often do work better than government bureaucracies at a lower cost. But most of them are not truly private in character in that their only customers are governments.
Governments may have spending limits based on political machinations and the amount of taxes they can extract from people without causing a massive tax revolt. But they don’t face the ultimate test private companies face – the necessity to make a profit or, eventually, if the condition persists, go out of business. Since almost no government program ever dies or is eliminated without a titanic struggle, no matter how irrelevant, anachronistic or insignificant it is, there’s going to be money floating around, if not as much as some special interests would prefer. The “market” for government contractors is hardly consumer choice-driven.
Outsourcing some of those functions to “private” contractors might reduce inefficiency, but if it’s something the government shouldn’t be doing – like fighting the misbegotten war in Iraq – that’s being outsourced, then we’re just getting slightly less waste of tax money. And in the case of contractors in Iraq, since outsourcing military and military-related endeavors on the current scale is a recent phenomenon and so many of the contracts are no-bid contracts, it’s certain that acceptable contracting standards that involve a modicum of real accountability, including legal status and accountability, which almost invariably evolve by trial-and-error, have not yet been developed. So it’s by no means certain that we’re saving money by outsourcing so much to “private” contractors.
Read more by Alan Bock
- How Brainy Is Obama? – April 8th, 2010
- Time to Move Past Camp David Envy – March 21st, 2010
- Down the Rabbit Hole in Afghanistan – March 14th, 2010
- Independence, Empire Don’t Mesh – July 5th, 2009
- The Timid Emperor – June 28th, 2009