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Are military contractors heading back to Iraq?

Private military contractors may be enlisted in large numbers to Iraq to fight the Islamic State.
A private security contractor (L) and soldiers look at a destroyed vehicle after an attack near the Iraqi city of Najaf May 18, 2006. Witnesses said a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy of vehicles commonly used by private security firms, killing one Iraqi policeman.   REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish - RTR1DHVM

As the military strategy against the Islamic State (IS) is slowly getting clearer, some suggest employing private military companies (PMCs) to fill the strategic void in Iraq. After the signing of the Jeddah Communique, the option of raising a private Muslim expeditionary force was discussed among the security circles of the participating states. Recalling the murky areas left from the first contractors' war, perhaps, it is time to ask: Is the Iraqi government institutionally ready for the forthcoming second contractors’ war?

For many military analysts, the mobile, dispersed combat style of IS tells us that unless air attacks are backed by a robust ”boots on the ground” strategy, they will not have much bearing on the outcome of this war. Actually, with the fiasco in Mosul, we saw how the Iraqi army with its manpower and weapons superiority disappointed everyone. Serious doubts on the operational effectiveness of the Kurdish peshmerga were voiced even by the political elites of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is unlikely to expect a domestic actor to fill the strategic void against IS. In Iraq today, the most pressing security issue is the lack of a ground force with adequate training, experience and equipment that could confront IS in an effective fashion.

What about asking PMCs, which have tactical warfare capabilities equivalent to those of the militaries of developed countries, for help in filling this strategic void? Some argue that PMCs may be an economically feasible, politically viable and flexible option. In his Sept. 7 article in Stars and Stripes, Seth Robson notes that, maybe knowing these strategic advantages of PMCs, the US Army Contracting Command posted a notice last month seeking contractors willing to work on an initial 12-month contract, who should be “cognizant of the goals of reducing tensions in Iraq and providing a range of capacities, including force development, logistics and planning and operations.”

According to Ale Lake, the private contractors have long been waiting for this notice. He notes on Sept. 13, “None of the five current and former contractors who spoke with The Daily Beast expected a replay of last decade’s Iraq war. But they all said a major opportunity was coming — both for them, and for [US President Barack] Obama, who could use the private armies as a way to conceal just how many people will be fighting in this new conflict.”

In the same vein, some suggesting that we are desperately in need of another “surge” strategy to re-establish the “Sunni Awakening Councils" contend that the private contractors who could be drawn from the ranks of retired special operations troops and spies once so integral to the Awakening campaign in 2007 would provide this experience and expertise. Then one may conclude that the Second Contractors' War may be near for Iraq.

This second contractors' war, however, may be different. According to a reliable source from the security community of a coalition member state, some among the security circles of the Muslim states participating in the coalition — carrying the debate one step further — have been discussing the option of raising a “private Muslim Expeditionary Force,” which comprises “hired” ex-elite security personnel from the militaries and police units. During their visits, US officials have already been trying to figure out the scale and potential use of private security markets for discreet regional mobilization of the Muslim military contractors against IS.

In fact, the rapidly developing IS incursion is forcing the Iraqi government not only to buy more US weapons and supplies, but also to payroll an army of mercenaries and private contractors, previously hired by the US Defense Department. Recently, more than 5,000 specialists have been serving in Iraq as private contractors in the sphere of security. They are currently working as analysts, military trainers, security guards and translators — some 2,000 of them are Americans.

As one may remember, after the 2003 invasion, the United States depended on a large number of private contractors to carry out many tasks that in earlier times would have been largely performed by personnel of national militaries. That’s down from 157,800 at the height of the US military surge there in 2009. According to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), between 2003-2009, 93 companies provided security services worth $5.9 billion in Iraq, and the annual global budget of the private security industry in 2008 reached $100 billion.

A PMC strategy provides low-cost, political advantageousness (more private contractors means fewer soldiers returning home in coffins) and strategic flexibility, as it is easier to bend, deny or break a PMC strategy than a military strategy). However, whether the implementation of a PMC strategy is a sound solution as some suggest or not remains to be a question.

Three incidents from the time of the First Contractors' War remind us to be careful about the possible re-utilization of the PMCs in Iraq. In 2004, the gruesome killing of four Blackwater employees by a mob in Fallujah led to a long and bloody assault by US Marines. In addition, there was contractor involvement in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. Ann Hagedorn, the author of the famous book "The Invisible Soldiers," writes: "In the weeks after Fallujah, the news surfaced that at least 22 of the interrogators accused of torturing the inmates at Abu Ghraib were private military contractors." Blackwater employees who were protecting a convoy in Baghdad in 2007 were also accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. The United States brought charges against those involved in the killings. The case has not closed yet.

Following my somewhat scholarly article that examines the “unintended” consequences of the use of private contractors in Iraq during the First Contractors' War, I offer here some questions directly relevant for the use of PMCs against IS.

  • When deciding on the use of PMCs, which tasks should be considered as inherently governmental and which should not?
  • During the selection and contracting process, are contracts awarded competitively? What agencies of government need to approve PMC contracts? When are cost-plus contracts awarded?
  • What is the legal status of private contractors during the implementation of missions by PMCs? To what laws are PMCs and their employees accountable? Can they be tried and prosecuted? If so, who has the responsibility to do so?
  • Currently in Iraq, is there any oversight mechanism regarding the administrative oversight and evaluation? What agency has responsibility for oversight? Does the agency have adequate staffing for oversight?
  • Do military forces operate with or alongside PMCs with respect to effects of the use of PMCs on regular military forces? Are military forces demoralized by working with PMC forces who are paid much more for the same risks? Does the military experience higher rates of retirement and resignation when PMCs are hiring?

These are vital questions Iraqi officials should ask, because the operational use of the PMCs outside the control of the Iraqi government can undermine the path to self-sufficient military and police forces. More importantly, while the private security business may be seen as a job opportunity for Iraqis, the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian characteristics of Iraq must be taken into consideration. Any PMC heavily staffed with a specific ethnic/sectarian minority may become a challenge to the authority of the government, threatening national security and the future of Iraqi democracy. Iraq, as a sovereign state, should set the rules of the game in the contracts.

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