Hiring private firms to do soldiers’ jobs is politically convenient for the US. However many say the many scandals those contractors provoke both at home and on foreign soil lead to all benefits lost, as they undermine America’s own strategic goals.
The private security firm formerly known as Blackwater is on trial in the US because two ex-employees claim the company overcharged Washington for protecting State Department staff in war zones.
The firm, which is now called Xe Services, provides more mercenaries for the US in Afghanistan than anyone else, and has been implicated in a number of scandals. In 2007, its hired guns were accused of gunning down 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad. Despite a lengthy legal process, no-one was punished over the alleged massacre.
Mohammed Kinani’s nine-year-old son Ali was shot dead on that day by trigger-happy US professional killers, along with dozens of other innocent Iraqis, Kinani says.
“It appeared they were trying to kill everyone they could see,” he recalls.
Two other private American security companies were contracted to carry out interrogations at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Now the name is synonymous with horrific human rights violations including torture, rape and murder. The US Supreme Court recently threw out a lawsuit alleging abuse of prisoners by the contractors.
In Afghanistan, it is alleged that human rights violations and even killings are committed by security firms on a regular basis to an extent said to undermine coalition forces’ counterinsurgency efforts.
“They’ll start firing at anything that moves; they will injure or kill innocent Afghans and they’ll destroy property,” said Lt. Col. Jeff French, commander of 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment and Task Force Legion.
“We’re getting fairly consistent complaints about them. Everybody knows somebody who’s been shot by the contractors,” said Captain Casey Thoreen.
The lack of accountability has forced the United Nations Working Group on Mercenaries to push for specific international measures to regulate their activities. It is increasingly important now, because as the US military forces withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of contractors is set to grow dramatically.
“The US government has outsourcers many of the military and security functions to these private security companies. They’re not regulated and they’re not controlled – this is what we are extremely concerned about. We’re calling for regulation on a national and international level, so that these companies are accountable,” Jose Luis Gomez del Prado from the UN Working Group on Mercenaries says.
But Washington is reluctant to let an international body regulate their activities, saying it will find its own ways to hold contractors accountable. But so far, the US justice system has largely failed to do so.
“We’re seeing around the world cases of kidnapping, rape, murder, and we see vary rare cases when there are criminal cases launched against them,” says Scot Horton, a New York-based attorney specializing in human rights law and the law of armed conflict.
Experts say further privatization of war is convenient for the American government, because, among other reasons, it doesn’t have to justify the deaths of troops at home.
“The president, whoever the president may be, can get us involved in conflicts only using the uniform forces to do the official fighting and thousands of contractors doing the unofficial fighting that is under the radar, that isn’t being covered by the media,” former Bush administration official Michael O’Brien explains.
Here is what Senator Obama said before he became president: “We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors.”
But apparently as a president he now thinks differently, with the contractors’ role in America’s wars bound to increase, and with the victims of their crimes still begging for justice.
Sterling Jensen, former contract interpreter and civilian foreign area officer for the US Marines, says that unlike the contractors, soldiers are much more careful about using rules of engagement because they represent a country, not a company.
“People don’t like the foreign troops; they don’t like to see a foreign uniform. But they know that foreign uniform has certain regulations that are a lot stricter,” says Jensen.
As the US military pullout is seeing a swap with private contractors, some companies like the former Blackwater will try to get contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that does not mean that they are “in bed with” the Defense Department, notes Jensen.