The Privatization of War

Billmon of Whiskey Bar about the fact that one of the Pentagon’s numerous contractors in Iraq is Erinys International, a private military company (PMC) that’s providing security for Iraqi oil installations. Erinys employs a lot of South African security and paramilitary types, veterans of apartheid-era oppression. The company hit the news recently when the Shaheen hotel suicide bombing killed Frans Strydom and injured Deon Gouws, two of its employees. (Technically, they worked for SAS International, a subcontractor to Erinys Iraq, a subsidiary of Erinys Intl. So it goes.) Gouws was a police sergeant who “worked closely with the Security Branch and the notorious Vlakplaas death squad.” Strydom was a member of the Koevoet, a brutal paramilitary force that was disbanded in 1988 under pressure from the U.S.

Billmon vents a lot of righteous fury, if not surprise, at the fact that the U.S. would even consider working with a company that has those sorts of people on its payroll. (As if that’s not enough, the deal with Erinys is one of many that’s channeling money into Ahmed Chalabi’s pockets.) The rotten taste I got in my mouth reading about it all came with a bit of deja vu — another PMC with South African ties, Northbridge Services (formerly Executive Outcomes), has recently been nosing into West African politics.

I’m trying to decide if Billmon is taking it too far with this sort of comparison, though:

I suppose most ex-Gestapo hands are too old and feeble to sign up for a tour of duty in a place like Iraq. But maybe the Coalition could recruit some replacements from the ranks of the old East German Stasi?

He cites a litany of Gouws’ past crimes, but neglects to mention that they’re all known because he confessed to them in 1996 as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It seems to me an important detail that he’s not an escaped war criminal or someone who evaded a trial, but someone who participated in the process that South African society thought best to get it beyond its years of nightmare. I don’t bring this up in order to defend Gouws, or because I think contracting with Erinys is anything but an awful idea. But I do think we need to keep our focus broader than on just the cataclysmically, obviously bad contracts. There’s a bigger issue here. The whole notion of subcontracting military operations — something that’s being taken to unprecedented levels in Iraq — carries with it problems regardless of whether the working stiffs are former Koevoet goons or former Navy SEALs.

These articles (and this one:)[1] examine the extent of corporate involvement in the Iraq war and previous engagements. When it comes to private contracting there’s a whole spectrum from food service workers and the like to the folks who take on actual soldierly duties — those are the ones I’m concerned with here. It’s impossible to know how many such people there are in Iraq, because the companies that employ them are under no obligation to reveal their numbers to the public. The same goes for their casualty figures, which aren’t included in the official U.S. military tallies.

It should come as no surprise that the increased use of private contractors in a military operation is part and parcel of Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a leaner, meaner military. He would like to farm out as many duties as possible and use soldiers for battlefield gunnery and little else. Erinys is guarding the oil fields. Dyncorp is training the Iraqi police force. As James Fallows observed, it was for tasks like this that the Future of Iraq project recommended a much bigger military presence in Iraq. Rumsfeld slashed the troop strength and brought in the private sector instead.

So why is this such a bad idea? First of all, as noted above, private contractors aren’t accountable to the public the way that the government is. They aren’t even accountable to Congress: the Executive branch can hire contractors without having to seek Congressional approval, and can use this tactic to avoid Congressional limits on military activity. (For example, PMCs are fighting a proxy war in Colombia in order to keep the apparent extent of U.S. involvement to a minimum.) Then there’s the bit about our tax dollars paying for the livelihood of apartheid-era thugs. Or the time in Bosnia when Dyncorp employees kept underaged women as sex slaves. It all comes back to accountability — imagine for a second how much more of a brouhaha there’d have been if those guys had been U.S. soldiers and not private contractors. American soldiers take an oath of service, operate behind U.S. diplomacy, and are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. None of this holds true for a private contractor, even though odds are that he was a general or a member of Special Forces just a few years ago, and made the jump to the private sector for a cushier, better-paying job.

Today, PMCs are beholden to the government for their contracts — it’s how they make all their money. But they’ll grow and diversify. What happens when one of them gets big enough to bully Congress around? When international conflicts help their bottom line, what’s to stop them from encouraging a military action that would otherwise be ill-advised, even unconscionable? Some people would say that’s already happened; some would even say it’s happened twice. I’m not that cynical yet, but there’s little question that’s the way the trend is going. Give me a big, expensive, risk-averse military beauracracy — heck, even a UN peacekeeping force! — any day over an outfit whose first priority isn’t peace and stability, but enhancing shareholder value. The privatization of war is just a subset of the larger problem of privatization: there are some situations where you want the profit motive to stay the hell away.

[1] The articles cited here and below appeared in various publications originally, but are currently hosted by CorpWatch, the Global Policy Forum, and Sandline International. Sandline is actually a PMC, and its site mirrors not just the text of articles but all the html and images on the pages where they originally occur. I don’t know what’s weirder — that, or the fact that they happily link to articles highly critical to PMCs right from their website.