Small Wars Journal

All Hands On Deck -- Radically Reorienting Private Security in Iraq

Sat, 09/22/2007 - 2:51am
Authors Note: This article was written in late August 2007, well before the present controversy over the Mansour neighborhood shootings by Blackwater Security. It is not a response or intended to address that incident.

The role of Private Security Companies (PSCs) operating in Iraq has always been controversial. It is said Iraq is a 'different kind of war'. That is true in the sense that all Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, no matter what their regular duties, suddenly became light infantry in a vicious counterinsurgency. It is a battle without a rear area and an extremely small military presence in proportion to the local population.

Rear area security, perimeter security and highway escort of supplies were once the domain of the Military Police and light infantry units. They virtually belong to PSCs now. Originally, a temporary measure for reconstruction, PSCs are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Iraqi security.

It is far too late to argue whether more combat forces should have been brought to Iraq in the first place. Reconstruction priorities proved to be a significant drain on the U.S.'s already-overstretched force. The massive plan to completely redevelop Iraq's war damaged infrastructure and get oil and energy back on line became a high priority for the Bush administration. Other projects included refurbishing the national electrical grid, rebuilding destroyed bridges, revitalizing the southern Iraq marshes, demining the battlefields, investigating Saddam's crimes against humanity and a wide-spread democracy building program. For a society of 25 million people, this effort was massive. These projects employ tens of thousands of American, British and Iraqi partners who had one thing in common at the start. They had no security. The US Army could not provide it and the need for follow on security forces was clear. There was a pressing need for PSCs in Iraq and with it came unforeseeable troubles such a group could bring.

In the last four years, several critical incidents occurred which called into question the efficacy and necessity of having non-combatant guns on the battlefield that operated outside of both American and Iraqi law. For example:

  • The 2004 murders of four PSCs in Fallujah led to the hastily ordered assault by the Marines that ultimately ended up killing hundreds of servicemen and civilians.

  • Revelation of "trophy" videos showing PSCs engaging suspected cars with machine gun fire, edited to music and made to look like joy rides.

  • The alleged escape of former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samaraie with the assistance of 'foreign' PSCs.

  • The downing of two PSC operated Little Bird helicopters within one week.

  • The filing of waste, fraud and abuse charges of tens of millions of dollars against several companies by both the US government and former employees.

  • The abduction of and disappearance of American, British, Italian and Austrian PSCs operating throughout Iraq.

  • Numerous incidents of high profile civilian shootings resulted in some bodyguards being arrested at gunpoint and deported from the country by military authorities.

  • Major massacres of several PSD convoys in Baghdad and Anbar province forced at least four companies to end operations in Iraq.

  • The January 2007 incident when Iranian-backed Shiite militia men posed as western PSCs in order to abduct and kill five US soldiers from a post near Karbala.

General David Petraeus has started bridging the gap of the sometimes acrimonious and occasionally dysfunctional PSC-MNF-I relationship. Testifying before Congress in January, he stated that there needed to be a unifying effort to ensure that the counterinsurgency strategy he wanted to put in place would in fact succeed.

General Petraeus stated:

"The next step is to ensure the ability of the military and civilian departments to work closely together. Counterinsurgency warfare requires a total commitment of the government -- both military and civilian agencies -- and unity of effort is crucial to success."

However, it was his later comments that surprised detractors of Private Security companies:

"However, we do not necessarily have to secure every part of Baghdad at once -- this can be done in stages -- and will have to be done that way given the way the forces are expected to flow into Iraq. Beyond that, tens of thousands of ministry security forces and tens of thousands of civilian (often third country) contracted guard forces protect key sites in Baghdad (including, for example, the US Embassy, MNSTC-I HQs, the Ministry of Oil, etc.) that MNF-I and the Iraqi government would otherwise have to detail soldiers or police to protect. These forces, again, number in the tens of thousands -- and although by no means all are of high capability and some are undoubtedly compromised, they do secure hundreds of sites that otherwise would require coalition or Iraqi military or police forces."

General Petraeus was clear that, contrary to past commanders, he believes PSCs should be counted on as a part of the coalition. Here are ten suggestions to advance that proposition.

1. Establish an Army controlled Force Protection Command for PSCs. MNF-I should consolidate PSCs into a unified DoD-backed organization: Security companies could to be placed directly under the command of a field grade officer assigned to MNF-I, with appropriate liaison staff big enough to support the needs and operations of all PSCs. This provisional Force Protection Command (FPC) would be assigned the job of organizing, supporting, regulating all PSC personnel in Iraq and making them accountable under a commissioned military commander. It has precedence, as virtually every military base police force in the US, including the Pentagon, operates contract security on a similar model.

Such a provisional command would make sense in that it would allow PSCs to operate in their present defensive role guarding reconstruction efforts against the insurgents, but would allow them to answer to MNF-I and the Government of Iraq (GoI) officially, as do all other forces. PSCs provide a high standard of force protection capability and could be placed where needed to keep the reconstruction effort moving.

Some have asked if this meant that a security company would essentially be nationalized or drafted by MNF-I? No, in fact MNF-I would be providing a framework for operations that would have safeguards and guarantees for both the company and the client, most of whom are their subcontractors or US government entities. In the present freewheeling environment this may be a difficult concept to accept but the advantages for both parties would be enticing.

For MNF-I it would create a legal and contractual framework to place additional security resources in locations that need localized security and that do not have a continuing need for large combat forces. The army would also be obliged to ensure that the PSCs are adequately prepared to operate in these areas of operations.

For the PSCs, it would receive government furnished weapons, vehicles and limits on liability. They would be treated as is any other civilian Department of Defense employee.

Finally, it ends billions of dollars of cost-plus contracts that seem to go into a black hole. It pains me to say it but some companies need to understand that the unregulated feeding at the Iraq War trough is soon ending, They need to remember the enormous funds for these contracts consume comes directly from the mouths of the combat soldiers.

2. Properly Arm the FPC PSCs for Counterinsurgency. PSCs would gain benefits immediately from being under the FPC guide-on. As de facto DoD employees MNF-I would have to ensure that they, like any other line unit facing the insurgents, would have proper weapons, protective equipment and supplies to carry out their missions. It would open up the tightfisted policy of making PSCs buy their own weapons or black market guns. Every contract should say, "government will furnish all weapons." PSCs need advanced modern rifles and new crew served weapons up to and including the M-240 machinegun and the Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher. They would replace the terrifying hodge-podge of broken stock Iraqi Ak-47s and PKC machine guns many PSCs were forced to purchase off the black market. It would also bring total weapons accountability within reach.

3. Standardize the entire FPC force. The FPC could transform the PSC world in Iraq into a unified entity instead of dozens of individual companies guarding their own interests and those of their client's before the MNF-I mission. In fact, in Iraq, the principle client is the US government. To effect this, all security contracts would be managed and contracted by MNF-I, including those of State Department. Having these contract forces, MNF-I would oversee and be responsible for the protection of all US activities in Iraq. Only companies —to put their men under the FPC chain of command and meet the army's standards would be awarded contracts.

MNF-I would set the standards of uniform, weapons, Rules of Engagement (ROE) and ensure adequate logistics support. The MNF-I would monitor all PSC contracts and ensure that the standards are met. On the other hand, soldiers will welcome force protection personnel operating under a military staff and watching their back for reasons other than being paid.

4. Dispel Mercenary Title. So long as PSCs operate as commercial entities for commercial reasons of the owners, they will be viewed as mercenary -- mis-trusted by US forces and vilified in the press. A strict military command watching over, directing and integrated with them will help dispel that myth. Lets be frank, a fraction of PSCs operate outside of the rules but their behaviors have impact that affects all. For example, media profiles of questionable behavior such as the "Heavy Metal Mercenary" featured in Rolling Stone Magazine and the joy-ride shooting videos of another company led to Congressional action that placed PSCs under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

5. End the Mass Contracting of Third Country National (TCNs). Over time most detractors came to regard PSCs as Mercenaries -- especially those bringing in large numbers of TCNs. TCNs were brought in largely because they would work for low wages and were ethnically distinct from the Iraqis. With the exception of a few companies, which has used ex-British army Ghurkas and United Nations trained Fijians for years, the recent trend is to strip third world armies of full battalions in order to be the lowest bidder. It lends a bit of truth to accusations that MNF-I is paying foreign mercenaries. This practice needs to end. The FPC should be comprised of soldiers and staff only from the United States. The UK and Australia can form their own PSC commands and operate them as allies do.

There needs to be a measure of personal, patriotic commitment to the force protection mission, not just to the payday. The trained manpower is out there; the willingness to pay them more than Ugandans, Chileans and Peruvians is not.

7. Implement Strict Accountability. The immunity granted to PSCs by Ambassador Bremer's CPA Order #17 should be revoked ... completely. It should not be expected or welcome by the private security community. To be able to act with complete impunity encourages rogue individuals and unscrupulous entities to enter Iraq with the intent to "get some and get paid" rather than perform the mission professionally. There have been no prosecutions to date of PSCs involved in questionable shootings or even outright murder. A "What happens in Baghdad, Stays in Baghdad" mentality blurs the line between the rogues and the professionals, and will only lead to a greater chance of a truly horrendous incident affecting everyone.

Some companies will be reluctant to forego their lucrative contracts for lower ones but Iraq will definitely be the swan song for the contracted armed security industry if the military does not take a firm hand in controlling it.

8. Make PSCs An Integral Part of the Strategy ... Legally. Congress needs to introduce legislation that would essentially force professionalism and transparency on PSCs. It would also place them in a legally binding framework and protect them under the Geneva Conventions. It should also serve as a reminder that they are being paid to represent the interests of the ultimate paying client, the American people.

As for the Department of State, CIA and others? Here contracting has gotten out of control -- the PSC forces they contract should be commissioned as officers in those agencies. If PSCs can act as Diplomatic Security officers, CIA interrogators or even clandestine collection officers then those contractors should be directly deputized into the organization. It will save an enormous quantity of money and may even improve their own in-house security operations.

Some may see such a PSC regulating law and heavy-handed contracting sensibility as a reason to leave the business ... and good riddance. Those that would remain will reap the benefits of an integral and enduring relationship with lower overhead costs. If there is any reluctance, the simple answer is to break their contracts and competitively bid to find companies that are more cooperative.

9. Remove Colonel Cathcart and Korn from the battlefield. Unlike the two logic-defying fictional characters from Joseph Heller's Catch-22, some of the rules that govern behavior towards and by PSCs are hard to believe. Most soldiers in Iraq are supportive of PSC operations, but the resentment and distrust of others has occasionally led some to misinterpret orders. Since 2003 vague orders have gone out several times to MNF-I soldiers who were told to confiscate legitimately acquired M-16 style weapons from PSCs on legitimate US government subcontracts, while on armed protection missions, which exposed them directly to danger. One incident in 2004 where PSCs were disarmed by the US Army led to the abduction of the four by insurgents watching the scene nearby. This ended with one being executed. Until the FPC can be stood up a singular, unambiguous order needs to come from the absolute top right down to the boots on the ground concerning PSCs and their role in the big picture -"They are with us -- given them every assistance."

10. Hold Everyone to the Same Standard. As for intelligence agencies such as the CIA, NSA and DIA? Same standard. There cannot even be a perception of a double standard for officers of these agencies and the corporate employees of contracted companies. Whatever laws apply to the DoD contractors should and must apply to anyone in the intelligence business as well. Intelligence collection or bodyguarding, the professionalism must remain high and being a non-USG employee should never be an excuse to exercise deniability if contractors abuse our trust or freedoms.

Everyone needs to be in the fight: General Petraeus could, in reality, have an additional 20,000+ armed forces at his disposal, if he brought them officially under his umbrella, armed them adequately, made them as accountable and recognized their losses to the insurgency.

Contracted security operations in Iraq should no longer be just about the bottom line. Too many good men and quite a few civilians have died without anyone held accountable. Using contract vehicles and non-disclosure forms to ensure there is no scrutiny of a contracted company's actions and spending should be no more acceptable than it would be for an active Army unit.

The nature of the enemy and tactics that we see in Iraq are a classic example of how seemingly ill-equipped third world armies may break down into highly effective insurgent forces in future wars of the 21st century. It has been said many times before that the new battle space will be dominated by threats originating from within the population and from 360-degrees. In a future conflict, host nation security resources may evaporate on contact, as they did in Iraq.

Our military forces are a mammoth and designed to crush conventional forces and limit unconventional ones. Presently, it cannot adequately man the force protection or gendarmerie role as when it had millions of men in World War Two. If manpower continues to limit the army's ability to protect the rear, then contracted force protection should have a bright future.

As a former PSC director that managed hundreds of men in Iraq, I am among one of the many from the inside who have called for reform and accountability in the industry, not because a company's future or profits may be at risk, but because it is a unique time in history for counterinsurgency. PSCs have a role. If PSCs are brought directly under MNF-I command as seamlessly as all other DoD civilians it could work out for all involved. For the money America is spending, we should expect nothing less.


Pragmatic Thinker

Mon, 10/01/2007 - 8:28am

Interesting study but not one that will get endorsed any time soon by the various miltary industries who are earning A LOT of money supporting the 'Global War on Terrorism'. I think, if anything, you will see increases in privatization across the security spectrum. This is something that has been growing since the early-90's, and is just getting bigger and bigger. I may have earned my Business Degree online but it doesn't take someone with an MBA to figure out that $$ money is fueling this train and it is full steam ahead, steady as she goes... What I would like to see are the statistics of the numbers of retired G.O.'s who are now currently payrolled by some private military industry? This cancer is self-promoting when you have GO's eye-balling the very lucrative salary potentials they could earn when they hang-up their stars.


PW Singer (not verified)

Thu, 09/27/2007 - 10:58am

I respect where the idea is coming from and think it makes several good points, but its still not a solution. Its a bit like saying "Well, yes, the emperor has no clothes on for the last 4 years, so lets put a scarf on him now." Brookings will have a 20 page report coming out today (at or at on private military contractors and COIN entitled "Can't Win With Em, Can't Go To War Without Em." The report finds that it is not merely that the use of military contractors is actually undermining COIN efforts along 7 broad parameters, but that the military can no longer carry out its core mission of winning the nations wars.
The idea proposed above only accepts this dual problem, not changes it. Moreover, there are three more problems with such a retasking: 1) The implementation of the idea would be well nigh unworkable in practice, undercut morale, and even raise costs. 2) The idea would really only solve 2 of the 7 problems of how COIN is being undermined outlined in our research, and most importantly 3) Even if implemented, the situation we saw play out with Blackwater last week would have still occurred.
As many folks who've seen my writing on PMFs will know, I was in this camp for several years, of trying to analyze and policy idea our way out of it through better oversight procedures, improved laws, etc., but have simply come to the conclusion that it just keeps sending us down the rabbit hole further.

Pragmatic Thinker

Tue, 09/25/2007 - 4:33pm

Good ideas but not sure you will get buy-in from the PMC's for this type of organizational structure, especially putting them under some sort of DoD control. Many of them left the military because of its beauracratic ineptness, and I imagine many of them would be highly reluctant to fall under the military banner again. I think many of these men serve not as mercenaries but as Americans who believe the mission in Iraq is important enough to risk their lives in protecting diplomats, amd I say more power to them if they're making $600/day. That is so American that you can't call it anything else.

Now the static security guards withstanding, which the argument of hiring third party nationals is strictly an economical one due to the savings in paying Filipinos, Nepalese, Indians, and so on to do the job for a fraction of what an American wants... I think Mr. Nance misses the real point of PMC's and the baggage they carry, and that is war pays and it has since Desert Storm when then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney pushed for privatization of many support functions within the military. This large presence of PMC's in Iraq is nothing more than a by-product of capitalism at war and it is paying quite well. Plus, it is a lot easier to turn off a contract then it is to reduce active manning by 20,000 or more. For every PMC carrying a weapon (whether doing PSD work or manning a checkpoint) there is one less uniformed soldier, marine, sailor, or airman deployed to do it.

abdulnasik (not verified)

Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:44pm

Mr. Nances's arguments for reeling in the PSC forces are very compelling and not without merit. However, he misses the point with regards to presence of PSC forces in Iraq. The administration and military commanders want and need these very types of forces to be present. They want them to be able to operate exactly in the same manner the insurgents operate, without regard for life and above the law. They are in Iraq to fight terror with terror. Their providing security gives them a reason to be present but is not the primary reason. It is no small oversight or coincidence that they are above any laws or prosecution either in Iraq or in America. Of course, if there were no illegal invasion, occupying forces, or oppressive American presence in Iraq there would be no insurgents. That would solve the PSC issue once and for all.