The Price of War

Dear Readers:

On December 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new Afghan battle strategy involving an escalation of more than 30,000 additional U.S. forces. While the decision created a media frenzy in the United States and around the world, plans for another Afghan surge went largely unnoticed. According to a Congressional Research Service report produced the same month, President Obama’s 30,000-troop surge could be accompanied by a surge in private military contractors (PMCs) numbering as high as 56,000. Put simply, private military contractors will outnumber American soldiers in Afghanistan by as many as 60,000.

PMCs provide a range of essential services for military, from supplying food and laundry, to servicing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and guarding convoys and even military bases. Although these services were once performed by military personnel, they have since been outsourced so a slimmed-down military can focus on combat operations.

While proponents argue that United States military operations are now the best supplied and equipped in their history, the heavy reliance on civilians for what were once military tasks has profound implications. The Department of Defense now employs hundreds of thousands of private contractors, but still lacks a comprehensive strategy to supervise and monitor their actions. According to contributor Peter W. Singer, senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, “As much as $10 billion dollars have gone missing or been misspent by private military contractors in Iraq. Literally thousands of weapons have similarly disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some even ending up in the hands of local insurgents or transnational terrorist groups.”

The human costs are even more substantial. On September 16, 2007, 17 Iraqi civilians died when guards from Blackwater USA, now renamed Xe Services LLC, opened fire in Nisour Square, Baghdad. The fatalities occurred while a Blackwater Personal Security Detail (PSD) was escorting an envoy of U.S. State Department vehicles en route to a meeting in western Baghdad. While the facts of the shooting are still in dispute, U.S. military officials later reported that the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force. In January of this year, Department of Justice officials announced that they are investigating Blackwater/Xe Services for allegedly authorizing payments of $1 million to Iraqi officials for a license to continue operating in the country. Blackwater’s license was revoked by the Iraqi government soon after the Nisour Square shootings.

In theory, the U.S. Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) gives U.S. Federal Courts jurisdiction to try criminal offenses committed by civilians hired by the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies that support Department of Defense (DoD) missions. Yet crimes committed outside the U.S. often go either unreported or are too difficult to investigate. Another obstacle involves the legal status of contractors not working for the DoD but another agency such as the State Department. In this scenario, as was in the case of the Blackwater personnel in Nisour Square, PMCs operate in a grey zone of legal immunity.

The military’s use of PMCs may have vastly improved the supply and equipping of American combat operations, but a greater question remains: will the hidden ethical, monetary, and human price of private contractors undermine the long-term efficacy of relying on civilians for military tasks?

In this issue of The Politic, Hannah Meyers and Ruta Nimkar, graduate students in international relations at the MacMillan Center and participants in Stuart Gottlieb’s seminar on private military corporations, discuss the the risks of utilizing PMCs and difficulties of regulating contractors’ behavior. Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Steven Arnold provides a countering view, discussing the substantial logistical and tactical advantages of utilizing PMCs and the unfair treatment of the practice by the media. J.J. Messner of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), an advocacy and research group representing 60 PMCs worldwide, explains the role of the IPOA ‘Code of Conduct’ in regulating the behavior of member companies and ensuring high standards of behavior and accountability for contractors. Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, Peter W. Singer, reveals the hidden monetary and human costs of PMCs and the measures that the government must take to ensure oversight and accountability for contractors. Laura Dickinson, Professor of Law at Arizona State University and Faculty Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs, discusses the consequences of utilizing PMCs for “public law values,” or those values embedded in international human rights law, international humanitarian law, public participation, and transparency. Finally, Senior Research Scholar in Law and Florence Rogatz Lecturer in Law at Yale, Eugene Fidell, discusses the criminal and civil litigation brought against the Blackwater personnel from Nisour Square and the possibility of achieving justice for the 17 Iraqis killed.

A report by the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo from January 2009 once argued that “the debate over whether and how to utilize private military and security contractors generates much heat but not much light.” In this issue of The Politic, we are bringing both.

Mathew Andrews & Edward Fishman

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