Subcontracting war

September 2, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

New reports cast more doubt on the use of private contractors in a war zone.  CNN is reporting that the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) briefed reporters and sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about widespread hazing incidents allegedly taking place at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

POGO says two weeks ago it began receiving whistleblower-style e-mails, some with graphic images and videos, that are said to document problems taking place at a non-military camp for the guards near the U.S. diplomatic compound in Kabul.

“This is well beyond partying,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, after showing a video of a man with a bare backside, and another man apparently drinking a liquid that had been poured down the man’s lower back.

These latest allegations are about ArmorGroup, a British company that was formed in 1981.  These types of companies have seen exploding rates of growth since the start of the Iraq war as more and more functions that have been traditionally assigned to the military have been outsourced to private security companies.  In 2004 it was reported that there were over 180 private companies providing services in Iraq.  This massive deployment has skewed traditional warfighting:

In the first Gulf War 15 years ago, the ratio of private contractors to troops was 1 to 60; in the current war, it’s 1 to 3.

In fact, the private sector has put more boots on the ground in Iraq than all of the United States’ coalition partners combined. One scholar, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, suggests that Bush’s “coalition of the willing” would be more aptly described as the “coalition of the billing.”

Those bills are in the billions and rising.

Blackwater alone has won $505 million in publicly identifiable federal contracts since 2000, according to an online government database. About two-thirds of that amount was in no-bid contracts.

Blackwater helicopter over Republican Palace, Baghdad. Image via Wikipedia (Commons)

Blackwater helicopter over Republican Palace, Baghdad. Image via Wikipedia (Commons)

Having just finished reading Jeremy Scahill’s shocking exposé of Blackwater, this topic is very much on my mind lately.  Scahill documents a culture of Christian zealotry within Blackwater that found ready and willing supporters within the ranks of the Bush Administration.  A number of highly placed former intelligence and military executives left government service and found employ as executives with Blackwater and other private security firms.

In 2007, Blackwater came under scrutiny as some of their mercenaries opened fire and killed 17 civilians in Baghdad. In the wake of that scandal, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee issued a scathing report that documented alleged abuses by Blackwater going back to 2003.  Politico reports that

The committee has also determined that Blackwater pays its contractors, many of whom are former U.S. soldiers, $1,222 per day, which comes to $445,000-a-year – “roughly six times more than the cost of an equivalent U.S. soldier,” according to the report. The firm has received more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001, including more than $832 million from two contracts with the State Department.

Blackwater has found themselves facing even more scrutiny as several highly unflattering stories have emerged lately.  First, the New York Times reported that Blackwater was recruited by the CIA as “part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.”  This is the program that caused Leon  Panetta, director of the CIA, to call an emergency meeting with Congress in June to brief them on details of the program.

Additionally, the Times of London reported in August that there were a series of disturbing allegations regarding Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (which has recently changed it’s name to “Xe”):

In one of the statements, John Doe 2, who worked for Blackwater for four years, alleged that Mr Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe” and that his companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life”.

They claimed that Mr Prince and other executives destroyed incriminating videos, e-mails and documents and hid their criminal behaviour from the US State Department.

John Doe 2 claimed in his affidavit that — based on information he said was provided to him by former colleagues — “it appears that Mr Prince and his employees murdered or had murdered one or more persons who have provided information, or who were planning to provide information, to the federal authorities about the ongoing criminal conduct”.

The bigger issue is one of accountability.  It becomes apparent that many of these companies are operating as though there is no oversight, and therefore no rules on their behavior.  However, the government seems to believe they have no choice.  And in fact, they may not have many alternatives, at least as long as they continue unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  CNN reported that military recruitment numbers had been trending downward for some time, until the financial crisis intervened.  Since then, “fresh recruits keep pouring into the U.S. military, as concerns about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are eclipsed by the terrible civilian job market”.   However, to hire enough active duty military to replace current mercenary forces would entail a substantial increase in the recruitment targets.  If they continue behaving as though there are no laws or rules governing them, sooner or later demands will be made to sharply curtail these companies.  Blackwater has already been banned by the Iraqi government, although they still have some employees in Iraq operating a subsidiary company.

EDIT: I’m just finishing up with Chalmers Johnson’s fantastic book Nemesis, and I came upon a passage which is perfectly applicable here.  Johnson’s quoting Anatol Lieven in America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism:

“U.S. global power, as presently conceived by the overwhelming majority of the U.S. establishment, is unsustainable…The empire can no longer raise enough taxes or soldiers, it is increasingly indebted, and key vassal states are no longer reliable… The result is that the empire can no longer pay for enough of the professional troops it needs to fulfill its self assumed imperial tasks.”  (p. 270)


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Category: Corruption, Current Events, Iraq, law and order, Military, Politics, The Middle East, War

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    But its the 'free market' kind of warfare 😉

    Our government hiring Mercenary = Bad.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: Through friends I know of several U.S. military personnel who were serving in Afghanistan, who left the U.S. military only to be rehired at several multiples of their military salaries to do the same jobs. I'm talking about people working as glorified soldiers who are making well into the six figures, which corresponds to the information to which you've linked.

    So, why pay exorbitant salaries to people outside the military instead of having soldiers continue to do that work? Think military industrial complex. To compound things, we are once again trying to use guns to solve social problems.

    When we're spending tens of billions of dollars on Afghanistan, wouldn't you expect to hear detailed optimistic progress reports by now? It repeatedly occurs to me that Obama ramping up Afghanistan to look tough to conservatives. It's time to cut the BS and level with American voters that this is yet another occupying military adventure that has failed.

    If we can't identify MILITARY objectives that resonate at a gut level, we should pull our military (and our incredibly expensive private military) out.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:


    You've nailed exactly the philosophy underpinning the expansion of the use of mercenaries. Bush's emphasis on extreme privatization (excluding losses on Wall St.) was visible in so many areas of his presidency.


    I read similar stories about military joining up with mercenary forces at thousands of dollars per day. Scahill covers some of that in Blackwater, and he also explains that there was no small part of hostility from active-duty military towards Blackwater and other contractors. One can understand the position of the average guy in the military- they thought they were signing up to nobly serve their country, but Uncle Sam is paying the mercenary next door at least twice as much. The perception exists that therefore, the military is intrinsically worth less than the mercenary, especially when the contractors can afford to buy all the armor and other equipment that there have been problems in acquiring through the military. Remember military families were holding fundraisers to raise money to armor humvees and send body armor and camel-baks to their loved ones in the field? I imagine the debauchery profiled in Afghanistan this week by the mercenary forces there will do nothing to improve that perception.

    And you're exactly right, despite sending additional forces there, there are no signs that a turning point in Afghanistan is near. When even arch-conservative George Will says it's time to get out, it's time to go.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Alternet reports that that 250,000 of our "soldiers" in Iraq and Afghanistan are high-priced private soldiers:

    According to new statistics released by the Pentagon, with Barack Obama as commander in chief, there has been a 23% increase in the number of “Private Security Contractors” working for the Department of Defense in Iraq in the second quarter of 2009 and a 29% increase in Afghanistan, which “correlates to the build up of forces” in the country. . . Overall, contractors (armed and unarmed) now make up approximately 50% of the “total force in Centcom AOR [Area of Responsibility].” This means there are a whopping 242,657 contractors working on these two U.S. wars.

    Here's the full story.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    It occurs to me that this contractor situation is unseemly in many ways. Really, why are we hiring private soldiers when we have U.S. soldiers? How dare our leaders convince themselves that U.S. soldiers are not as capable as paid mercenaries (most of whom formerly fought as soldiers on the public payroll). The whole situation smells of payola/corruption. We've already got the world's most expensive military. That we feel the need to supplement through the use of contractors who are gouging the taxpayers is atrocious.

  6. Niklais Pfirsig says:

    Merks are the way to go if you are a high ranking politician trying to destroy your own government.

    First, As private contractors, they has less oversight and accountability.

    The high pay buys their loyalty, and at the same time weakens our govt troops as the government is willing to let the contractors pick and choose what they want to do and the regular army gets the leftover crap work. which is usually more dangerous.

    This resulting in hardships for the soldiers which can be spun in the media as proof of the incompetence of the government and justification for more Merks.

    When do the merks come home and take control of Washington D.C. ?

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