The Sept. 16 ambush of a U.S. diplomatic convoy driving in Baghdad’s Mansour district has resulted in a whirlwind of second-guessing of Blackwater contractors working for the State Department. Meanwhile, there has been virtually no condemnation of the Iraqis who started the attack.
Blackwater says its contractors came under attack and successfully defended American diplomats, but some Iraqi witnesses, most of whom work for the Ministry of the Interior, claimed that Blackwater shot first. Iraq’s Interior Ministry is well-known to be somewhat corrupt. And its decision to order the company out of the country should raise questions — as the order was issued just hours after the attack before any formal investigation was conducted.
It’s always hard to pin down the truth in a war zone. In this case, too, all of the facts may never come to light. But it seems we should not be taking the word of individuals from the Iraqi Interior Ministry as gospel.
The Blackwater contractors and the U.S. diplomats are saying the same thing — that the security detail reacted lawfully while under assault. Further, the State Department’s after action report matches the American account. The Iraqi witnesses, meanwhile, have given a number of conflicting accounts.
Nonetheless, without knowing any facts, many outspoken war critics have rushed to side of the Iraqi witnesses, condemning Blackwater, some even announced congressional Hearings.
Only a few days later, however, Blackwater was back at work protecting U.S. officials in Baghdad. As an Iraqi official admitted, there would be a “security imbalance in securing Baghdad” without Blackwater’s contractors.
Some opponents of the war, like former CIA field officer Robert Baer, have seized this incident to call for the repeal of Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, the decree that, according to critics, puts foreign security contractors beyond the reach of Iraqi law.
The truth, however, is that Blackwater employees and other contractors are not above the law. Order 17 only excuses contractors from Iraqi laws when the action in question is required to fulfill a contract. In other words, despite several news articles that claim otherwise, crimes like rape, murder, and theft could be tried under Iraqi law, as such actions would never be required to execute a contract.
Further, private security contractors are bound by a number of U.S. statutes, international treaties, federal acquisition laws, and defense trade controls regulations.
For instance, any contractors accompanying the U.S. military as part of the “total force,” are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (USMJ). (The contractors implicated in the Sept. 16 shooting were hired by the State Department, not the Defense Department. So the USMJ would not apply.) In addition, any wrongdoing is also subject to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, the War Crimes Act, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the Anti-Torture Statute, and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and other statutes.
Quite simply, contractors who are performing their jobs aren’t bound by Iraqi law for one reason — Iraq is still a mess. In a nation where government corruption is the norm, one can easily envision a situation where Iraqi lawmakers attempt to score points by waging a politically-motivated witch hunt for “rogue” contractors.
That’s why a decision to revoke Order 17 would effectively shut down private security companies. And that is the true goal of most who have rushed to judgment.
But if anyone should be opposed to driving private security contractors out of Iraq, it should be the same anti-war lawmakers who are calling for such action. If Blackwater and other private firms are kicked out, the U.S. military would be forced to replace the lost security guards with troops taken off the battlefield.
And it wouldn’t even be a one-for-one trade.
First, consider Blackwater’s most-common job — the protection of high-value U.S. civilians. Today’s insurgents know that any successful killing of a U.S. diplomat would make the front pages of every U.S. paper, thus driving down support for the war. So insurgents are putting a great deal of effort into such operations.
That’s why so many Blackwater units are comprised of former elite Special Operations Forces. Indeed, not one diplomat has died while being guarded by Blackwater.
By removing security firms like Blackwater from Iraq, the military would be forced to pull other elite units from actual military operations — an incredible misallocation of resources.
Fewer elite units in the field would mean many more troops — it’s that simple. The military operations would still be conducted, but the military would need more men to accomplish its objectives.
But let’s assume that the military were able to simply replace private security contractors with regular troops. That, too, means a massive influx of soldiers.
Right now, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 private security contractors in Iraq. About 1,000 of those contractors work for Blackwater.
As Judge Richard Posner explained last year on his blog, “In order to place 20,000 additional soldiers on duty in Iraq, the military would probably have to hire a total of 60,000, since soldiers are rotated in and out of Iraq about every three years, and these soldiers might be surplus if the war ended or there was a large withdrawal of U.S. troops.”
In short, any decision to remove private security contracts would make the recent surge look like a mere drip. That’s why it’s so surprising that the leading advocates of such action are the same anti-war lawmakers who have opposed the recent surge.
What’s more, Iraqi government officials themselves recognize that private security firms are essential to their nation’s struggle for stability.
Those who recognize the true depth of this war realize that it’ll be a long one. The truth is that democracy is locked in an existential struggle with jihadism. And today, jihadi ideologies are running rampant through Iraq, ready to counter and crumble the free society that’s only in its infancy.
This struggle, of course, means much more than just capturing and killing terrorists. But in Iraq, obviously, that is the battle that is now being fought. Unless Congress is willing to launch a new surge — one that’s more than three times the size of the one that began in January — private security contractors are essential to our victory.
Richard W. Carlson is a former director of the Voice of America and former president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is the vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a counterterrorism think tank in Washington.
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