In an age of globalisation where everything from manufacturing to accounting is outsourced, it should come as no surprise that governments now contract out many security functions that were once considered an inherent part of military duties.
Leading the charge to grab as many of these lucrative contracts was, until recently, the Blackwater empire. Now, embroiled in a string of legal actions and embarrassing headlines, it is struggling to survive.
Blackwater first came to public attention when four of its employees were killed by Iraqi insurgents, and their bodies burned and dragged around the streets of Fallujah. However, the company really hit the headlines on September 16, 2007, when its gunmen killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. In the following outcry, the firm allegedly paid a million dollars in bribes to Iraqi officials, a charge it has denied.
Its recent re-branding as Xe Services last February has not helped much in drawing a line under its controversial activities. Its contract with the State Department to protect American diplomats has been terminated, as has been the agreement with CIA to assist the agency arm its drones in secret bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Xe’s subsidiary, Presidential Airlines, continues to drop supplies to US Special Forces bases in remote parts of Afghanistan.
In Pakistan’s context, the firm has become synonymous with public perception about American interference in the country. Despite repeated denials, Blackwater/Xe is widely viewed as yet another symbol of Washington’s intrusive policies. This impression was recently reinforced by a New York Times story alleging that the firm’s operatives worked hand in glove with the CIA in covert anti-terrorist operations.
In the wake of President Obama’s recent announcement of the surge that will add 30,000 soldiers to the present strength of 68,000 in Afghanistan, few realise how deeply the concept of defence outsourcing has become entrenched. For instance, there are already 104,000 American private security contractors in Afghanistan.
Mostly ex-servicemen, these people perform a variety of tasks that, in earlier conflicts, were almost entirely carried out by government personnel. Ranging from perimeter security to mobile protection, these functions include logistics and intelligence. Paradoxically, the US administration is barred by law from outsourcing ‘inherently governmental functions.’ Departments stretch this to include all sorts of tasks because nobody has actually defined exactly what these functions are.
One reason to reach outside the ranks of officialdom is that many of these tasks are temporary, and can be performed by short-term contractors. In conflict zones, it is difficult to hire trained people for security services without relying on ex-servicemen. The biggest attraction, of course, is that the size of the military presence can be kept small, and casualties among contractors do not attract the same attention that dead and wounded soldiers do. As P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution wryly put it: ‘What we created was not a coalition of the willing. We’re relying on the coalitions of the billing.’
I first became interested in the Blackwater story when Sheila, my daughter-in-law, asked me what the firm was doing in Pakistan. This was when many people were insisting that it was playing a nefarious role, and I had dismissed the charge as yet another conspiracy theory.
However, when I began researching the story, I came across some very curious facts and allegations. In an investigative report in the latest Vanity Fair, Adam Ciralsky quotes Erik Prince, the founder and CEO of Blackwater/Xe, as claiming that he was not just a CIA contractor, but also an agency ‘asset.’ Cynical observers suggest that Prince has made this claim to pre-empt court proceedings.
Prince became such an integral part of the army’s and the CIA’s campaign against militants that according to Ciralsky, he was known as ‘Mr Fix-it on the war on terror.’ Such were the ties between Prince and the Bush administration that Blackwater won $1.5 billion in contracts between 2001 and 2009, and raked in $600 million in 2008 alone.
One American journalist who has researched deeply into the subject is Jeremy Scahill, a reporter with The Nation, and author of Blackwater. He has written about the firm’s birth in 1997, and its phenomenal growth after 9/11.
Among other allegations about Prince, perhaps the most bizarre relate to his connection to the Knights of Malta, an extreme-right Roman Catholic organisation that traces its roots back to the Crusades. Some ex-employees have accused Prince of being a Christian supremacist sanctioning the killings of Muslims because he believes he has been charged by God to ‘rid the world of Muslims and Islam.’
Others point to the fact that he supports an orphanage in Afghanistan. Whatever the truth, Prince does seem to think he has been chosen for a mission to defend America. He cites a recent near-death experience in his interview with Ciralsky in the Vanity Fair article. Apparently, he was in Islamabad when he received word that his son had nearly drowned in the family swimming pool in the United States. Changing his itinerary, he caught the next flight back, checking out of the Marriott hours before it was nearly flattened in a huge suicide blast a couple of years ago.
Even as Blackwater/Xe struggles to survive in a suddenly hostile environment, military contracting is expected to grow in the United States. With the coming surge, more security firms will be awarded lucrative contracts. At the height of the US presence in Iraq, as many as 190,000 contractors were on the government payroll.
While they have been likened to mercenaries, they have not yet been openly inducted into the frontline. However, as the New York Times article shows, some of them at least are involved in covert operations. It is a matter of time before they begin participating in the fighting unless governments agree on rules of engagement that would bar hired guns from joining regular troops.
One problem is that these contractors are outside the official chain of command, and do not have to conduct themselves in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
Soldiers and spies, on the other hand, have careers and pensions to protect. As we saw, the Blackwater employees accused of using lethal force in Iraq were simply fired without undergoing the rigours of imprisonment. However, some of them have now been brought before a court, and may yet pay the price for their actions. But so far, at least, Erik Prince has yet to face judgment.