THE BLOG

PMSC and the Quest for Perfect Information

10/09/2010 12:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

People often try to fit private military and security contractors into a binary construct. Either they are thinly veiled corporate mercenaries or they are unsung patriots doing their part for the country, albeit at a pretty good salary.

As I have tried to make clear in the past it is not that simple. I personally do not subscribe to either stereotype. The most important quality of PMSC is that they are civilians, often working either directly for, or indirectly supporting the U.S. military and other government departments or agencies. Of course much of the time they are not working for the military at all, or even the U.S. government, but that is another story.

To me the most interesting part of the PMSC phenomenon, which in its most recent phase is at least thirty years old, is how they fit into states' geopolitical and foreign policy ambitions. To borrow from Harry Potter novels, that is the issue that must not be named.

It is true that I often mention problems with using PMSC. But that is mostly because some supporters insist on making claims for them that have not been clearly backed up by data. While some of the claims, as in the perennial one that they are more cost-effective than using regular military forces sound reasonable, and might even be true, at least in certain carefully limited circumstances, that is far from the often sweeping claims made for them.

Let's consider that PMSC businesses operate in a market economy. But free market economics only concerns itself with private sector exchanges, which in turn assume perfect information.

However, anyone who has ever studied PMSC in detail understands that perfect information is exactly what we do not have in regard to PMSC. They very fact that contracts are frequently, if not usually, classified and that both clients and PMSC themselves are often not revealed are just two examples of the lack of perfect information.

As a comical example consider the recently published book Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan -- and the Path to Victory by Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer, U.S. Army Reserve.

As most people are aware the U.S. government purchased the entire print run of the book from St. Martin's Press for $47,000 a few weeks before its scheduled release last month. But it did not suppress the book entirely: Operation Dark Heart has since been reissued after an estimated 250 sections were blacked out and deleted. Now if the government is going to resort to blatant censorship one would hope it would at least do so to protect truly vital information. Did it? You can guess the answer.

Consider that in the unredacted version the index cites Blackwater as an entry on page 242. In the censored version of the book that page reads, "I went through the CIA pipeline to get back to the States, flying on a __________-chartered flight from Kabul to Tashkent."

Now really, is there anyone, anywhere who is unaware that Blackwater operated, through its former subsidiary Presidential Airways, in Afghanistan? Anyone, anyone? Yes, I did not think so.

Okay, that was just for comic relief. Now, in the interest of providing "perfect information" let's take a look at some expert testimony which takes on some of the generalizations made by PMSC supporters.

Back on June 22 there was a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Hearing; "Investigation of Protection Payments for Safe Passage along the Afghan Supply Chain?" Let's look at the written testimony of Colonel Hammes, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.

Col Hammes is not an opponent of PMSC. His statement opens by detailing the benefits of their use. But he goes on to detail their costs:

The Bad

When serving within the combat zone, particularly during a counterinsurgency, contractors create a number of significant problems from the tactical to the strategic level. Three primary characteristics of contractors, particularly armed contractors, create problems for the government. First, the government does not control the quality of the personnel the contractor hires. Second, unless it provides a government officer or NCO for each convoy, personal security detail or facilities protection unit, it does not control their daily interactions with the local population. Finally, the population holds the government responsible for everything the contractors do or fail to do. Since insurgency is essentially a competition for legitimacy between the government and insurgents, this factor elevates the issue of quality and tactical control to the strategic level.

Quality control is a well publicized issue. The repeated reports of substandard construction, fraud and theft highlight the problems associated with unarmed contractors.
As noted above, these incidents are being investigated. In addition, the USG is working hard to refine contracting and oversight procedures to reduce these types of problems.
Unfortunately, the problem is just as prevalent with armed contractors. While high-end personal security details generally are well trained, less visible armed contractors display less quality. When suicide bombers began striking Iraqi Armed Forces recruiting stations, the contractor responsible for recruiting the Iraqi forces subcontracted for a security force. The contractor was promised former Gurkhas. What showed up in Iraq a couple of weeks later were untrained, under-equipped Nepalese villagers. n10 Not only did these contractors provide inadequate security, the U.S. government passed the authority to use deadly force in the name of the United States to these untrained foreign nationals.

Since the government neither recruits nor trains individual armed contractors, it essentially has to trust the contractor to provide quality personnel. In this case, the subcontractor took shortcuts despite the obvious risk to the personnel manning the recruiting stations. Even if we hire enough contracting officers to effectively supervise the contracts, how exactly does a contracting officer determine the military qualifications of an individual much less a group such as a Personal or Site Security Detail? The U.S. military dedicates large facilities, major exercises, expensive simulations and combat experienced staffs to determine if U.S. units are properly trained.
Contractors don't. We need to acknowledge that contracting officers have no truly effective control over the quality of the personnel the contractors hire. In fact, we have to accept that we will be unable to determine their actual effectiveness until they begin to operate in theater. And then, only if a member of the U.S. government is in position to observe the contractors as they operate.

Compounding the problems created by lack of quality control, the government does not control the contractor's daily contact with the population. Despite continued efforts to increase government oversight of contractor operations, nothing short of having qualified U.S. government personnel accompanying and in command of the contractors will provide control.

With support contractors this means we may get poorly wired buildings or malfunctioning computer systems. However, with armed contractors we have the bullying, intimidation and even killing of local civilians such as the September 2007 Blackwater shootings in Nisour Square.

The lack of quality and tactical control greatly increase the impact of the third major problem - the United States is held responsible for everything the contractors do or fail to do. Despite the fact the United States has no effective quality or operational control over the contractors, the local population rightly holds it responsible for all contractor failures. Numerous personal conversations with Iraqis revealed a deep disgust with the actions of armed contractors. They noted we gave them authority to use deadly weapons in our name. While Iraqis were not confident American forces would be punished for killing Iraqis, they believed it was at least a possibility. However, the Iraqis were convinced that contractors were simply above any law.

These perceptions serious undercut the legitimacy of the government. A key measure of the legitimacy of a government is a monopoly on the use of force within its boundaries. The very act of hiring armed contractors dilutes that monopoly. Legitimate governments are also responsible for the actions of their agents - particularly those actions taken against their own populations. Yet, despite efforts to increase the accountability of contractors, the widespread perception is that armed contractors who commit crimes against host nation people are outside the law of both the host country and the United States.
While we have laws criminalizing certain activities, the cost and difficulty of trying a contractor for crimes that occurred overseas in a conflict zone has so far deterred U.S. prosecutors. In over seven years of activity in Iraq, no contractor has been convicted of a crime against Iraqi citizens. Either contractors are a remarkably law abiding group or the system does not work. The fact that an insurgency is essentially a competition for legitimacy in the eyes of the people elevates the presence of armed contractors to a strategic issue.

Exacerbating the legitimacy issue, contractors of all kinds are a serious irritant to the host nation population. Armed contractors irritate because they are an unaccountable group that can and does impose its will upon the population in many daily encounters - driving too fast, forcing locals off the road, using the wrong side of the road. Even unarmed contractors irritate the population when they take relatively well paying jobs that local people desperately need.

In addition to undercutting its legitimacy, the use of contractors may actually undercut local government power. In Afghanistan, security and reconstruction contracts have resulted in significant shifts in relative power between competing Afghan qawms as well as allegations of corruption. Dexter Filkins, writing in the NY Times notes the power structure in Orugzan Province, Afghanistan has changed completely due to the U.S. government selecting Mr. Matiullah Khan to provide security for convoys from Kandahar to Tirin Kot.

"With his NATO millions, and the American backing, Mr. Matiullah has grown into the strongest political and economic force in the region. He estimates that his salaries support 15,000 people in this impoverished province. ... This has irritated some local leaders, who say that the line between Mr. Matiullah's business interest and the government has disappeared. .... Both General Carter and Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, said they hoped to disband Mr. Matiullah's militia soon -- or at least to bring it under formal government control. ... General Carter said that while he had no direct proof in Mr. Matiullah's case, he harbored more general worries that the legions of unregulated Afghan security companies had a financial interest in prolonging chaos." n11

Thus, an unacknowledged but very serious strategic impact of using contractors is to directly undercut both the legitimacy and the authority of the host nation government.

Contracting also has a direct and measureable impact on the local economy. When the U.S. government passes its authority to a prime contractor, that contractor then controls a major source of new wealth and power in the community. However, the contractor is motivated by two factors - maximizing profit and making his operation run smoothly. This means that even if he devotes resources to understanding the impact of his operations on society, his decisions on how to allocate those resources will be different than those of someone trying to govern the area. For instance, various contractors' policies of hiring South Asians rather than Iraqis caused anger among Iraqis during the critical early phases of the insurgency. Desperate for jobs, the Iraqis saw Third Country Nationals getting jobs Iraqis were both qualified for and eager to do. n12 While there were clear business reasons and some security reasons for doing so, the decision was a slap in the face of Iraqis at a time of record unemployment within the country.

There is more but rather than post it all here I suggest you read his statement.

So just remember that we are far from knowing the whole story when it comes to PMSC. Neither one note critics like Jeremy Scahill of The Nation magazine, the Captain Ahab of the PMSC industry, or trade associations like IPOA give or even know the whole truth.

As my friend Bill Kittredge notes, "People simply do not want to construct rational arguments that are internally consistent if that consistency conflicts with their normative or personal preferences."