Tuesday, September 18, 2007

War Contractors: If You Pay Them, They Will Come

I was invited to go to the grand opening of Blackwater USA’s new headquarters building in Moyock, North Carolina last year. Unfortunately I had a work conflict and could not attend, but my buddy, Matthew Graham of www.trainingtargets.com, said he had a great personal visit with Erik Prince, BWs founder. Erik drove Matt around the several hundred acre training facility and they talked shop. Unfortunately, Erik has lost several employees. Unlike most company owners, Erik’s employees have died.

Recently I drove over the Euphrates River on a bridge from Fallujah, leading a high-intensity military convoy. The city was riddled with bullet holes and broken-down buildings. The harsh realities of wars’ destruction were evident, but the city was vibrant with life and activity. It wasn’t until I heard of the very controversial Blackwater shooting that took place just west of Baghdad on Sunday that I recalled the March 31, 2004 incident on that bridge in Fallujah. As a former private security contractor, I remember that day all too well.

The news shattered the tight-knit community. Prior to about 2004-05, everyone knew everyone. If you didn’t know a contractor personally, you knew someone who did. It didn’t take long until the e-mails and phone calls started to pour in. “Who were they?” “What were their names?” “What were their backgrounds?” The information couldn’t come fast enough.

The four Blackwater security contractors, killed in an ambush that fateful day, perhaps burned alive in their vehicle, had their eviscerated, avulsed, charred bodies poked and butchered by shovels and sticks. The merciless Iraqi mob spit on their victims’ mutilated bodies and kicked them with the bottom of their shoes—the gravest of all insults. The citizen throng shouted for joy as they danced around the now-rotting flesh, cheering, smiling. Without restraint, the merciless Fallujah mob dragged what was left of the American bodies and hung them from the beams of the bridge, then continued to dance and rejoice.

One of my close friends, a contractor whom I’ll refer to only as “Slim”, spoke with me not long after the incident. Slim had been working for a Private Military Company (PMC) in Iraq and was intimately involved in—and nearly went on—that specific mission. It’s not relevant here to go into further details surrounding Slim’s experience; but, suffice it to say, Slim and a few other friends and associates I knew, were linked to the incident and the people.

Now fast forward to Sunday, September 16, 2007. Things have changed drastically in the PMC community since then. For one thing, contractors (meaning security contractors) have hatched like Spring chicks. There’s a lot of work. Since September 11, 2001, the threat to American’s outside the United States has increased dramatically. The U.S. Department of State, perhaps the government entity that uses contractors the most, simply does not have enough trained and qualified personnel to meet the growing security requirements.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified to the Senate recently, “There is no alternative except through contracts.”

The Washington Post reported in June 2005 that the State Department would allot a portion of a nearly $1 billion contract over a five-year period to three PMCs, Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp. The contractors would work at 27 high-threat U.S. embassies, protecting U.S. diplomats and personnel.

The government is outsourcing big time. And it’s not going away anytime soon. Consider Tysons Corner, Virginia, the booming area for government contract-based entrepreneurship, just west of DC. It’s not just PMCs that get the contracts, either. My friend Ahmed’s business, Harbinger Technologies Group, Inc, focuses on government contracts as well. (www.htgcorp.com)

With the inundation of security contract work, the level of quality personnel has occasionally been sacrificed. I’m not saying by any means that this is the reason why the Blackwater incident on Sunday left eight Iraqi citizens killed and many wounded, but maybe I am…

Sure, there are still some fine operators working and supervising these contracts, but there has been some dross let into the ranks too. The standards were lowered from what it was in the past. The contracts of the past were only passed around by word of mouth. No one wanted to get into a firefight, if it came to that, with someone they didn’t absolutely know and trust. It was a referral based-business only. No loose cannons were permitted. Those awarded the contracts were vetted by peers and trusted colleagues. And, not surprisingly the crème de la crème of protectors and gun fighters came forward from the most elite circles of military, counterterrorism and law enforcement. Many had both.

The paradigm shift in hiring hundreds, even thousands of contractors, means the standards were lowered. Subsequently, increasing the risk of personal security, political dynamics and international relations, as well as increasing the liability of the contract agency/company.

Civilians with no military or law enforcement experience joined the ranks. Young, testosterone-laden lads with four years in the conventional military (vice special ops), no combat experience and a high school diploma could apply to make the kind of money that they could never dream of. Now, there’s a bad mix: scared, young, inexperienced. These types aren’t sure of what to do. Do they exercise patience and restraint? Do they really understand the laws of war and carefully consider target selection or do they indiscriminately kill in the heat of battle and combat stress?

Attorney Davis Brown, an expert on international law and the law of war, said of the Blackwater incident on Sunday, “Unless robust training programs are put into place, such incidents are more likely than not to recur.” Mr. Brown continued, “The incident underscores the need for everyone to be thoroughly trained in the Law of Armed Conflict before and during their deployments. This includes not only military forces [and private military contractors], but also private civilian support contractors, right down to the cooks and janitors.”

Mr. Brown and Liberty Protective Services, LLC (www.LPSsafety.com) have joined teams to help educate the war reporters and the media, as well as contracting companies operating in high threat areas.

We need the truth. I’m the first one to stand and say, let’s not be quick to judge this situation. You and I were not there. All of the facts need to be examined. It is especially important that anyone who judges this does so objectively.

It’s terrible if innocents were killed. That is what is seemingly communicated by the accusations at least—that the victims were apparently “totally innocent”, I mean. To say ‘sometimes in war there is an expectable loss’ provides no comfort to the grieving family members! Perhaps that’s why the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to oust the North Carolina-based company from operating in Iraq.

But, who knows…? Were those killed really innocent? Only the most thorough investigation will tell.

Of this Mr. Brown stated, “We don't know yet exactly what happened, and many facts will not come to light until the investigations are completed, which won't be for some time. Even then, we may never have a completely accurate record, because the findings and conclusions of the investigating panels are likely to vary with the political persuasions, biases, and hidden agendas of the investigators.”
“When one side of an armed conflict adopts terrorist tactics and embarks on a deliberate campaign of atrocities,” Mr. Brown continued, speaking of the insurgent population in Iraq, “they create an environment in which many more noncombatant casualties are likely. One reason for this is that they deliberate shield themselves among the civilian population, making it much more difficult to engage them without also harming civilians. The insurgents are directly responsible for these casualties,” he added pointedly. The Virginia-based attorney continued, “The indignation of having to fight an enemy that doesn't fight fairly sometimes unleashes rage, and sometimes, unfortunately, that rage gets directed against innocents. This does not excuse any individuals (on either side) from criminal responsibility for the atrocities they commit, but on some higher the insurgents must bear the responsibility for creating that environment in the first place.”

With the potential disaster this has on the U.S. mission in Iraq, as well as on Blackwater, I see a much greater level of scrutiny for contractors and contracting companies coming down the pipe. Contractors have been long concerned over the law suits and the potential legal trouble they could get into when operating in a foreign country. No contractor should have unlimited carte blanche. But with a strict oversight from government entities and civilian groups who do not fully understand the laws of war and armed conflict from a practical understanding, to include the intricacies of real combat, things could get ugly for the contracting world in a hurry.

In other words, if the quality of personnel is declining now, it may have the tendency to get even worse. Contrary to what some people believe, contractors are not your typical image of blood-thirsty ‘mercenaries’. They’re not pariah cowboys. And, the government cannot afford to lose contractors operating in Iraq or in any other country for that matter, especially a mostly-reputable security contracting company like Blackwater.

Finally, on a personal note, I’m glad no Blackwater guys were kidnapped and beheaded or strung up from any bridge. I guarantee whomever they were protecting was thankful of that too!

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