In the past few days, there has been a buzz of activity surrounding the questions that the Blackwater incidents have raised. The House of Representatives has passed a bill putting contractors in Iraq under U.S criminal law and the Senate has introduced a similar measure. The White House says it has grave concerns about the law because of national security implications. Even if the bill gets passed into law, there are no retroactive provisions so all the "losing hearts and minds" work done by Blackwater and others is just water under the bridge.
Just this morning, it has been reported that Secretary Rice has ordered that "special agents from the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security now ride with Blackwater security details; the bureau more closely review incidents like the recent shooting, and the convoys communicate with American military units operating in the same area." We are now going to reinsert government personnel into a situation that we contracted out under the guise of lack of government people to do the job.
This is similar to the situation I found in researching my book. KBR has been contracted to run vital truck convoys from Kuwait to bases in Iraq. According to KBR truck drivers, in the beginning, KBR provided the trucks, the truck drivers and the convoy commander for the convoy and the US Army just supplied the security. But by 2005, Army truck drivers told me that the Army, out of frustration with the performance and safety of KBR, brought in Army trucks and drivers to supplement the KBR trucks and took over the control of the convoy command job in order to make sure that their vital supplies got through. So here is another situation where the government contracted out to a contractor to "free up" troops to fight the war but where the Army, out of necessity, had to reinsert themselves. KBR is still getting paid for this job and the Army has had to take valuable men to back up these indispensable convoys.
This new effort for some accountability is a good start but it does not address a much larger, albeit less sexy, problem with contractors in Iraq. If these new bills are passed into law, they cover criminal acts done by contractors and their employees. The much larger problem is what the Army and others do when the contractor, in a hostile area, refuses to do all or some of the work in their contract or contractor employees decide to just quit and go home. As I mentioned in my past blog, the remedies for commanders on the field are to go back to the US and start civil proceedings against the contractor, an impossible situation in a hostile zone when he is relying on the work to be done. The employees have a constitutional right to quit a job and go home, leaving the contractor and the commander short handed to get vital work done, such as supplies, food and water to the troops outside the safe bases.
If the troops were doing the work of the contractors, especially the vital supply lines, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) they would have to do the work, follow the orders of their commanders or face jail. The US would be hard pressed to try to charge a contractor or its employee under the UCMJ for something that would be a civil matter in the US.
So what is the solution? After much research and review for my book, I have come to the conclusion that you cannot use contractors in hostile areas. Their ability to quit or do less of a job threatens the troops. We have had too many stories of troops doing without because of contractors. In order to make sure that vital supplies and equipment makes it to the troops, the contractors need to be pulled back to Kuwait, to the safe bases and the Green Zone. Relying on KBR and its employees to be the main convoy supplies for the troops will continue to be a problem. Contractors in hostile zones are potentially a crisis for the mission in Iraq as long as the contractor and his employees can just say no. Congress needs to address this problem which has much more potential consequence on our mission than the Blackwater episodes.