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Privatizing war
Thursday, April 22, 2004


It's one thing for the U.S. military to outsource food and laundry services to private firms, as it started doing aggressively in the 1990s, but it's quite another to outsource the actual fighting. That is what the Pentagon is perilously close to doing in Iraq. The grisly deaths of four American security contractors in Falluja last month underscored America's troubling reliance on hired guns. After the 130,000 American troops, the nearly 20,000 people employed by private security firms now form the second-largest contingent - surpassing the British - in the coalition of the willing, although a private guard's services cost as much as $1,500 a day.

The benign term "security guard" does not convey the true role of these armed men. They are hardly sitting behind desks and signing visitors into office buildings, and not all of them are doing what would be more appropriate tasks, like guarding oil wells. Hired guns are charged with the security of the occupation authority's headquarters in Baghdad, and of Paul Bremer 3rd, the American proconsul.

Contractors from Blackwater USA, the employer of the four Americans savagely killed in Falluja, recently fought a full-fledged battle with militants in Najaf, and they were even able to call in a company-owned helicopter for air cover. The Pentagon seems to be outsourcing at least part of its core responsibilities for securing Iraq instead of facing up to the need for more soldiers.

Increasingly relying on these loosely accountable contractors is bound to backfire. As the United States prepares to hand the sovereignty of Iraq back to its people, the fact that the Iraqi army and police force are now being trained by a private company risks sending the message that loyalty is owed not to one's country, but to whoever gets the contract. It is difficult to coordinate the dozen or so private firms in Iraq, and there is little regulation of their training and recruitment.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pledged that the Pentagon will keep looking for ways to "outsource and privatize." When it comes to core security and combat roles, this is ill advised. The Pentagon should be recruiting and training more soldiers, rather than running the risk of creating a new breed of mercenaries.