Sometimes, a conventional wisdom is just that, a conventional wisdom, not the truth; at least not the whole truth. As case in point, let's look at the recently published article, "The Other Side of the COIN: Private Security Companies and Counterinsurgency Operations," published in the October issue of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
According to the abstract:
The Iraq War was a watershed regarding the scope of battlefield support by Private Security Companies (PSC). Skeptics soon raised concerns about these new actors being an impediment to the success of the very same operations they are meant to support. According to the critics, PSCs are grist to the mill for insurgents as they employ aggressive tactics and thereby alienate the population, cause credibility problems because they enjoy impunity, and increase coordination problems since they are not subordinated under the military chain of command.
But according to the author, Ulrich Petersohn, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zürich, this is not a problem with the use of PSC per se. Rather, "this is the consequence of a lack of preparedness to operate alongside PSCs. However, the military is accustomed to adapting to new unexpected circumstances. Hence, when problems occurred, the armed forces underwent a trial and error learning process that improved PSC employment."
Obviously, this is an important topic, as much of the use of PSC today occurs in area where intrastate, not interstate, war is occurring and much of what national governments are doing is counterinsurgency. So, obviously, the effectiveness of PSC in COIN work is a matter of critical interest.
Let's be fair. When it comes to war and conflict, no matter how well you plan, Murphy's Law applies; stuff, to put it politely, happens. Errors and mistakes are inevitable. But that doesn't mean the whole operation is doomed to fail. The difference between success and failure is adaptability. Petersohn quotes Brig. Gen. Herbert McMaster:
"[y]ou are never going to get it right before the war, but the key is to not be so wrong that you can't adapt once the complexity of the problem is revealed to you." In other words, the failure of a mission results from the inability to adapt to new circumstance rather than from the initial blunder itself.
In his article Petersohn examines three major criticisms of PSC use in Iraq.
First, PSCs are not integrated in to the chain of command, which contributes to the uncertainty on the battleﬁeld by sowing additional confusion ("friction argument").
Second, PSCs are said to be grist to the mill of the insurgency, as they employ aggressive tactics and alienate the population ("cowboy argument").
Third, the presence of PSCs thwarts the COIN goal of establishing a legitimate government, as they enjoy(ed) impunity for any wrongdoings ("impunity argument").
These are important concerns, and I have made them myself in the past, but Petersohn makes some good arguments that over time, after much trial and effort, the military, and other departments of the U.S. government have developed effective procedures to deal with them.
The armed forces had clearly undergone a learning process regarding coordination with PSCs on the operational and tactical level. The experience shows that with adequate cooperation interfaces in place, PSCs and the military may share the same battle space without generating too much friction.
This, however, is not to say that the current state of coordination between regular military forces and PSC is where it should be; only that it is significantly better than it was when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot of what has happened over the years with the use of private contractors is one and half steps forward and one step back. Just to cite one example from Petersohn :
First, although coordination has improved, still not all PSCs -- not even all government PSCs -- are covered by the system. DoS [Department of State] Tier II contractors, those contractors supporting general embassy operations, are covered, while DoS TierI contractors, those who provide security for personnel and facilities under Chief of Mission authority, high-level government ofﬁcials, USAID personnel, and other U.S. government agencies, do not need the approval of the ﬁeld commander. Second, almost all improvements are focused on enhancing coordination between PSCs and the U.S. military. Coordination with Iraqi security forces has not been addressed yet, though it is becoming increasingly important as the U.S. armed forces withdraw from the country. However, neither institutional interfaces nor any procedures have been set up.
Still, that is hardly an insurmountable challenge. But, I think the most important problem Petersohn touches on lies in his final paragraph when he writes:
Despite the steep learning curve in Iraq, obstacles remain to future employments of PSCs. No major publication summing up the lessons learned has been issued. The recently published Field Manual on COIN devotes only three paragraphs to contractor support in general. The armed forces therefore run the risk of losing the accumulated knowledge. The reports coming from Afghanistan indicate that many mistakes have been repeated and that the lessons gathered in Iraq have had to be relearned or have only slowly been implemented. What is needed is an institutional learning process that synthesizes the lessons learned from Iraq into a ﬁeld manual on PSC support on the battleﬁeld and a vigilant and robust oversight regime.
It is here that the military is light years ahead of the PSC industry. Previously I have written that military professionals understand that the unpredictability and chaos of war make the study of the past mandatory in an effort to try to avoid repeating its disasters. Keeping and preserving detailed records is not just a bureaucratic chore but a vital mission. Militaries have always understood, long before Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said it, that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The PSC/PMC industry desperately needs the equivalent of the Center Army for Lessons Learned so that all firms can take advantage of the lessons, many of them dearly earned at the price of blood, limbs, and lives of numerous contractors, learned from their operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many in industry would rather keep, not share. In some cases they would like to but are prevented from doing so by the wishes of their clients. And, while the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan did outstanding work, the decision, after it wrapped up its work and issued its final report earlier this year, to seal its internal records for 20 years was not only wrong, but counterproductive, from the viewpoint of improving the use of PSC in the future. One can only hope that when groups like Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction wrap their work they won't do the same.
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