Sunday, August 14, 2005

Don't Call Them Mercenaries

Daniel Bergner has an excellent article in this week's New York Times Magazine on the use of "private security companies" in Iraq. Because the military is stretched so thin in Iraq, tens of thousands of private contractors working for scores of different companies (not all of them American) have been hired to protect civilian authorities, American firms engaged in reconstruction projects, and even military bases. Companies that didn't even exist two or three years ago have U.S. Government contracts worth tens of millions of dollars a year. Recently retired members of U.S. Special Operations Forces have returned to Iraq with companies such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy to protect Halliburton's logistics operations or key installations in Baghdad's Green Zone. And they're earning four or five times as much money as private contractors as they did while in uniform. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has had to institute a system of bonus pay to try to stem the flow of highly trained and experienced soldiers from the military to the privatized military industry.

While the Pentagon knows how many Americans are serving in Iraq in the military and how many casualties there have been, no data is kept concerning private security companies. Their employees are engaged in firefights and their convoys are attacked by improvised explosive devices and car bombs, but no one seems to know how many have been killed--or how many Iraqis they have killed. It is an unregulated industry that, in spite of some good reporting and some excellent scholarship by P.W. Singer and Deborah Avant, still generally operates under the radar.

The implications for the future of national security are potentially quite dramatic. It's a topic to which I will return soon.