November 19, 2007

Private military in Iraq

It takes a lot of people to fight a war but not all of them need to be soldiers.

When the Los Angeles Times asked the government about the number of private contractors it employs in Iraq, there turned out to be more frontline civvies than troops: 180,000 and 160,000, respectively.

Not all of these men and women are engaged in laundry or catering. Many are military veterans carrying out heavily-armed security roles traditionally seen as the preserve of armed forces: guarding bases, ensuring the safe passage of diplomatic convoys through war zones, and interrogating captives.

The US war effort has become dependent on such activities: that became clear on September 16, when the North Carolina-based private military firm Blackwater suspended operations amid Iraqi government uproar over the role of it personnel in the killing of 17 people in Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

Market for manpower
Five UN diplomats have travelled around the world in recent years gathering evidence on the industry's dimensions. Their report to the UN General Assembly on November 7 bears elaboration:

The 'private military industry' has an annual turnover of around $100 billion
About 70% of this accrues to companies headquartered in the US or UK
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a "mushrooming" labour market for ex-military and police personnel around the world
According to the LA Times figure, nearly a quarter of those 180,000 contractors are neither US nor Iraqi. Nationals of at least 30 countries are understood to work in security roles in Iraq -- among them are large numbers of South Africans, Chileans, Nepalese and Fijians. The UN panel says that security firms have set up their own recruiting operations in many countries, while their demand for personnel has stimulated the creation of independent recruitment companies in those countries.

There are horses for courses in the industry. Guarding State Department diplomats and other high-profile work is generally carried out by highly skilled special forces veterans from Western countries, other armed security roles are carried out by people from a patchwork of ethnicities.

There is no doubt that private security firms are good at their job. The problem is that the job may be the wrong one. In their single-minded focus on protecting the individuals entrusted to their care, private security companies adopt aggressive tactics and are 'trigger-happy' when they suspect a threat.

It does not help when some of the personnel are of dubious character. Individuals linked to human rights atrocities in apartheid South Africa and General Pinochet's Chile have been found working in Iraq, while the UN panel has raised concerns that some recruits have their wages with-held, suffer poor working conditions and are inadequately equipped.

In modern wars prior to the Iraq conflict, governments did not have the option of large and efficient private military firms to supplement their forces. Blackwater and its peers may provide too much temptation for governments: a way to supplement their military manpower while circumventing the constraints imposed by public opinion or legislators.

In 2006, the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, co-wrote the US military's manual on counter-insurgency warfare, stressing the need to work at close quarters with a population and win their trust. The activities of Blackwater's personnel in Baghdad could be undermining that objective.

1 comment: said...

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