Like them or hate them, we still need private security contractors
By Col. Mark Cancian (USMCR Ret.)
In criticizing the use of contractors in Iraq, some observers cite Blackwater as the tip of the contractor iceberg. It's a fair analogy, but it deserves to be taken a step further. As with an iceberg, you may be able to shave some off the tip, but hacking away at the body is pointless.
Much discussion about contractors arises from confusion over who they are. With all the attention paid to Blackwater, many suppose that all contractors are gun-toting bodyguards. Current figures indicate that there are about 265,000 contractors in Iraq - 55 percent of whom are Iraqis and another 30 percent of whom come from third countries like the Philippines. The number of Americans (and Europeans) is relatively small. Ninety five percent work in reconstruction and logistics, with a few others in misc support roles like translation.
Actual security contractors number perhaps only 10,000. Most protect facilities inside major bases and never go outside the wire. These security guards are generally from third countries - for example, Salvadorans guard the USAID compound in the Green Zone. Their function consists of screening personnel entering these facilities by checking ID cards. This group has essentially never fired a shot in anger.
What's the point in replacing these security contractors? They have volunteered for the work, are doing a fine job, and cause no problems. Further, the military is already fully employed and lacks the personnel to replace them. (A further complication is that many security contractors work for the State Department, and the Defense Department is reluctant to divert scarce and highly trained personnel to protect diplomats.)
Blackwater (and its cousins Triple Canopy, DynCorp, and Aegis) together employ about 2,000 armed personnel. These constitute the groups that go outside the wire and have caused the widely publicized incidents. Their numbers are small enough that they could be replaced, in the near term, by military and, in the longer term, by State Department security specialists.
There are good policy reasons for doing this. But it would be no panacea.
Blackwater and other outfits like it are highly professional. Blackwater, for example, prides itself on never having lost a principal. Replacing them with ordinary grunts won't do -- only the best will be adequate. Private security contractors are less expensive than government employees with their massive benefits, large infrastructure, and need for a rotation base. So costs would go up. (Hint to budgeters -- many of these costs can be hidden to make the cost of conversion look less expensive.)
Finally, the bodyguard mentality won't go away with the security company contracts; it must be changed from the top. Behind the highly publicized incidents were not "rogue mercenaries" but professionals dedicated to the mission -- protecting the principal at all costs. "At all costs" means just that; costs to the locals, to the broader counterinsurgency effort, and to relations with the host government are irrelevant. For a bodyguard, this is the only measure of effectiveness, and it won't go away just because the bodyguard works for the government.
So don't read too much into the trials of Blackwater contractors this week. We won't be getting rid of private security contractors anytime soon -- and for good reason.
Colonel Mark F. Cancian (USMCR Ret.) received his BA and MBA from Harvard University. From 2006-2007 he was assistant chief of staff for assessment at the Marine headquarters in Anbar Province, Iraq. As a military officer and civilian official in Washington, he has worked on force structure, acquisition, and manpower issues.
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