Monday, April 30, 2007

Shadow Army

In a TomDispatch piece, Jeremy Scahill takes aim at why nobody in the US political establishment seems willing to take on the implications of having nearly as many private contractors as uniformed soldiers running a military occupation of Iraq. You can understand why Republicans wouldn't want to touch this issue with a ten foot pole, but the Dems' avoidance is particularly shameful.

Scahill surveys the recent back and forth over Congressional funding for the war and a withdrawal timeline, which he rightly calls a sham being used by Democrats in order to provide political distance from the war without doing anything to actually stop it. He then links this action to the silence on the issue of mercenaries:

For months, the Democrats’ “withdrawal” plan has come under fire from opponents of the occupation who say it doesn’t stop the war, doesn’t defund it, and insures that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond President Bush’s second term. Such concerns were reinforced by Sen. Barack Obama’s recent declaration that the Democrats will not cut off funding for the war, regardless of the President’s policies. “Nobody,” he said, “wants to play chicken with our troops.”

As the New York Times reported, “Lawmakers said they expect that Congress and Mr. Bush would eventually agree on a spending measure without the specific timetable” for (partial) withdrawal, which the White House has said would “guarantee defeat.” In other words, the appearance of a fierce debate this week, Presidential veto and all, has largely been a show with a predictable outcome.

...While all of this is troubling, there is another disturbing fact which speaks volumes about the Democrats’ lack of insight into the nature of this unpopular war — and most Americans will know next to nothing about it. Even if the President didn’t veto their legislation, the Democrats’ plan does almost nothing to address the second largest force in Iraq — and it’s not the British military. It’s the estimated 126,000 private military “contractors” who will stay put there as long as Congress continues funding the war.

The 145,000 active duty U.S. forces are nearly matched by occupation personnel that currently come from companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which enjoy close personal and political ties with the Bush administration. Until Congress reins in these massive corporate forces and the whopping federal funding that goes into their coffers, partially withdrawing U.S. troops may only set the stage for the increased use of private military companies (and their rent-a-guns) which stand to profit from any kind of privatized future “surge” in Iraq.

From the beginning, these contractors have been a major hidden story of the war, almost uncovered in the mainstream media and absolutely central to maintaining the U.S. occupation of Iraq. While many of them perform logistical support activities for American troops, including the sort of laundry, fuel and mail delivery, and food-preparation work that once was performed by soldiers, tens of thousands of them are directly engaged in military and combat activities. According to the Government Accountability Office, there are now some 48,000 employees of private military companies in Iraq. These not-quite G.I. Joes, working for Blackwater and other major U.S. firms, can clear in a month what some active-duty soldiers make in a year. “We got 126,000 contractors over there, some of them making more than the secretary of Defense,” said House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha. “How in the hell do you justify that?”

...With such massive government payouts, there is little incentive for these companies to minimize their footprint in the region and every incentive to look for more opportunities to profit — especially if, sooner or later, the “official” U.S. presence shrinks, giving the public a sense of withdrawal, of a winding down of the war. Even if George W. Bush were to sign the legislation the Democrats have passed, their plan “allows the President the leeway to escalate the use of military security contractors directly on the battlefield,” Erik Leaver of the Institute for Policy Studies points out. It would “allow the President to continue the war using a mercenary army.”
Despite the money issue, Scahill argues that the primary problem with running an occupation via such a heavy mercenary force is that it allows for the war to be waged with an additional layer of unaccountability:
Contractors have provided the White House with political cover, allowing for a back-door near doubling of U.S. forces in Iraq through the private sector, while masking the full extent of the human costs of the occupation. Although contractor deaths are not effectively tallied, at least 770 contractors have been killed in Iraq and at least another 7,700 injured. These numbers are not included in any official (or media) toll of the war. More significantly, there is absolutely no effective system of oversight or accountability governing contractors and their operations, nor is there any effective law — military or civilian — being applied to their activities. They have not been subjected to military courts martial (despite a recent Congressional attempt to place them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice), nor have they been prosecuted in U.S. civilian courts – and, no matter what their acts in Iraq, they cannot be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. Before Paul Bremer, Bush’s viceroy in Baghdad, left Iraq in 2004 he issued an edict, known as Order 17. It immunized contractors from prosecution in Iraq which, today, is like the wild West, full of roaming Iraqi death squads and scores of unaccountable, heavily-armed mercenaries, ex-military men from around the world, working for the occupation. For the community of contractors in Iraq, immunity and impunity are welded together.
And here's Scahill's conclusion:
As the country debates an Iraq withdrawal, Congress owes it to the public to take down the curtain of secrecy surrounding these shadow forces that undergird the U.S. public deployment in Iraq. The President likes to say that defunding the war would undercut the troops. Here’s the truth of the matter: Continued funding of the Iraq war ensures tremendous profits for politically-connected war contractors. If Congress is serious about ending the occupation, it needs to rein in the unaccountable companies that make it possible and only stand to profit from its escalation.
Wishful thinking, perhaps, but still useful.

As you probably know, Scahill recently came out with a book on Blackwater USA, the preeminent private contractor that shot to fame when four of its employees were lynched in Fallujah three years ago. Obviously, this essay leans heavily on that book. Check it out.