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David Isenberg

David Isenberg

Posted: November 22, 2010 10:13 PM

Private military contractors often state that the bulk of their business is not employing guys with guns, i.e., private security contractors, and that PSC represent a very small share of their business. Estimates vary but generally it is significantly less than 20 percent when you look at it globally. This statement is certainly correct.

Private military contractors also say that the majority of their work is humanitarian, as in reconstruction work which provides the necessary conditions for stability to take hold. This is also true. For detail see the piece in the in-house magazine of what once upon a time used to be called the International Peace Operations Association, then changed to simply IPOA, and most recently renamed the International Stability Operations Association.

In the "President's Message," (p. 4) ISOA president Doug Brooks writes:

THE association that represents the stability operations industry, formerly called IPOA, is now the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA). The new name and logo are designed to better reflect the broad industry that provides vital services and support to the international community in conflict, post-conflict and disaster relief operations.

Those who study irenology -- an interdisciplinary effort aiming at the prevention, de-escalation, and solution of conflicts by peaceful means -- will tell you that peace is more than the end of fighting on the battlefield. It also involves creating the conditions for long-term stability.

But, of course, you can't bring about stability with the wave of a magic wand. Thus, the need for the guys with guns, who, in theory, help set the stage for nation-building by safeguarding those doing reconstruction and other nation-building work in the conflict zone from those nasty rebels, insurgents, militias, et cetera who try to make such work impossible.

This brings us to the forthcoming book Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders by Nathan Hodge, due out on Feb. 15.

Nathan Hodge is no neophyte on security issues. He has reported from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, and a number of other countries in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. For years he blogged on Wired magazine's well known Danger Room blog and now reports on the defense industry for the Wall Street Journal.

His work has appeared in Slate, the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and many other newspapers and magazines.

Here is what the Amazon blurb describes it:

Combining recent history and firsthand reporting, Armed Humanitarians traces how the concepts of nation-building came into vogue, and how, evangelized through think tanks, government seminars, and the press, this new doctrine took root inside the Pentagon and the State Department. Following this extraordinary experiment in armed social work as it plays out from Afghanistan and Iraq to Africa and Haiti, Nathan Hodge exposes the difficulties of translating these ambitious new theories into action.


Ultimately seeing this new era in foreign relations as a noble but flawed experiment, he shows how armed humanitarianism strains our resources, deepens our reliance on outsourcing and private contractors, and leads to perceptions of a new imperialism, arguably a major factor in any number of new conflicts around the world. As we attempt to build nations, we may in fact be weakening our own.

For our purposes the book's relevant portion is Chapter 9, "Kalashnikov's for Hire." The book is worth buying just for that alone. The publisher, Bloomsbury USA has kindly given me permission to publish excerpts. So without further ado, below is the first of three parts.

The presence of contractors, however, presented a major headache for military commanders, who were wary of hired guns moving around in "their" battlespace. The U.S. military likes to maintain a monopoly on lethal force wherever it operates, but the heavily armed contractor convoys were not under their direct control. Revisions to defense contracting regulations were supposed to tighten oversight of the army of contractors to insure that they complied with both local and U.S. laws, including the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, or MEJA, which theoretically allowed for prosecution of private contractors employed by the military in other countries. But they did not resolve the question of who, ultimately, had legal jurisdiction and control over contractors in Iraq.
I accompanied an Erinys team on a trip to Camp Taji, a sprawling U.S. military installation north of Baghdad that had once been a base for a Republican Guard tank division. The U.S. government had invested a serious amount of money in base infrastructure, and the day's mission was to pick up a "client" - an engineer working on a construction project at Taji - and deliver him safely to the Green Zone. The trip to Taji from downtown Baghdad, in theory, took half an hour, but driving on Iraqi roads was a risky affair. Insurgents were designing increasingly lethal roadside bombs, and the contractors were particularly worried about a new threat, the "explosively formed projectile" or EFP.
Unlike typical roadside bombs, made of an artillery shell buried beneath a road or concealed in some trash, an EFP was what some militaries called an "off-route mine," because it was placed beside a road. They were fabricated out of metal pipe and packed with a high-explosive charge; the business end sealed with a concave plate or liner. When the charge went off, the force of the blast turned the liner into a slug of molten metal that could slice through the door of an armored vehicle at supersonic speed. The EFPs were often tripped by passive infrared sensors. When the beam was broken, the bomb went off.
And the trip to Taji took an anxious two hours. "That road is incredibly dangerous--it's perfect for setting up an ambush," said one of the Russians. "The Americans and the Iraqis patrol Route Irish [the Baghdad Airport road] all the time, but on that road, you hardly see any patrols. By the end of the day, you're totally wound up."
Driving through downtown Baghdad was a nightmare for ordinary Iraqis as well. Contractor SUV motorcades drove aggressively, turning on sirens to force other drivers to the side of the road. Get too close, and you might get a warning shot. But there was a reason for the "tactical driving": If you didn't keep moving, you became a target. So when one of the armored SUVs in the Erinys convoy got stuck traversing a low concrete barrier, the shooters jumped out of the trucks to form a hasty roadblock, their rifles at the ready. One of the bodyguards, a lanky Ukrainian, stepped out to halt oncoming traffic. At least 6 feet 5, wearing full body armor and wraparound shades, he didn't need to point his weapon. He stood with his hand left hand raised, and the Iraqi drivers quickly stopped.
Fortunately, an Iraqi National Guard patrol was nearby. They quickly block all the civilian traffic merging from an access road and pulled around their truck, attached a chain, and towed the SUV free. The team members exchanged parting handshakes, boarded their vehicles, and turned back down the access road. We had to make a U-turn and reverse course through central Baghdad. As we sped away, I looked at the faces of the drivers in the opposite lane, where traffic was now backed up all the way to the next intersection; it was easy to see why Iraqis resented the contractors.
The military didn't like the contractors either, at least not the armed ones. Colonel Peter Mansoor, an Iraq veteran and a member of the Petraeus brain trust, explained the dilemma to me at Fort Leavenworth in the fall of 2006. Logistics contractors like KBR, he said, fit neatly in the military chain of command. But the security firms, he added, "could not be controlled. They work for whoever hires them, they work under different rules of engagement than the military, they don't always have the same communications capabilities. They don't always have robust access to quick reaction forces - reinforcements - if they get into trouble."
Part of the problem, military officers realized, was that bodyguards - whose primary mission was to protect diplomats, civilian reconstruction experts and other VIPs - could be very good at their jobs, at the expense of the larger nation-building mission. "Their limited role to protect the client may conflict with the overall mission, which is counterinsurgency," Mansoor said. "And if they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious, whatever it may be, they may be operating within their contract - to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side. I would much rather see basically all armed entities in a counterinsurgency operation fall under a military chain of command."
Members of the uniformed military could be held accountable for their actions: They were subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ. If they used excessive or indiscriminate force, killed or injured civilians in violation of the rules of engagement, or engaged in any other serious crime, they could be subject to a court martial. The U.S. military also had a system of condolence payments to compensate people for damage to property or accidental deaths and injuries caused during combat operations. If a contractor ran a car off the road, or shot an innocent person - deliberately, or by accident - Iraqis had no real legal recourse.
Who could hold contractors accountable for their actions? In late 2005, they were not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In theory, they could be prosecuted under the MEJA, which gave the Department of Justice the power to prosecute crimes committed overseas by contractors accompanying U.S. forces overseas. In practice, however, MEJA was a poor enforcement tool. Federal prosecutors were unlikely to commit resources to investigate contractor misconduct in a distant war zone, and the Department of Justice did not have offices in Iraq set up to investigate contractor misdeeds. MEJA was applied in only a few, exceptionally rare cases, and never against private security contractors. And then there was Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, the get-out-of-jail-free card for contractors. Two days before the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority, U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer signed CPA Order 17, which gave contractors blanket exemption from Iraqi law. It was, in effect, a form of diplomatic immunity for the foreign hired guns who were working in Iraq.
The management of Erinys liked to stress accountability: to their contract, to coalition forces, and to their internal corporate codes of conduct. They even had a system set up for paying compensation to Iraqis when they were at fault in traffic incidents. Andy Melville, the country manager for Erinys, told a PBS Frontline documentary crew: "We have a contract with the United States [Army] Corps of Engineers, which is through the American Department of Defense. Most of the contractual stipulations are based on Army regulations, and they actually quote Army regulations, and we have to follow our contract very, very closely."
But accountability, in the end, was a fiction. The ROC system was essentially self-policing. Contractors reported their movements - and escalation-of-force incidents - to the ROC, and incident reports relied in part on the honor system. No one was even sure how many private security operators were working on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq. And to Iraqis, the contractors seemed entirely above the law. One private security company, however, seemed more above the law than others. And they had emerged as the main provider of security for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq.

 
 
 

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