Of course, in the grand scheme of things, there is nothing paradoxical about that. The best way to protect your forces in a war is to the win and get them out. If, in the meantime, that requires that soldiers throw themselves at certain death on the beaches of Normandy — or on Haifa Street in Baghdad — then that is what they are expected to do.
And today in Iraq, that is exactly what they are doing. In countless situations, they fight against their survival instincts and lower their guard so the population feels safer. They refuse to return fire when fired upon if they cannot positively “ID” the shooter. They offer their lives so the insurgents don’t find a way to take advantage of their firepower. Their willingness to give their lives for the mission is what the military is all about — and it is what the counterinsurgency strategy presumes most vitally.
The problem with security contractors is pretty clear: Central Command isn’t even sure how many there are — according to one source in the Post article, there could be as many as 50,000. They are heavily armed, and use their best judgment of what is necessary for their own protection — not for winning the war. The COIN strategy doesn’t apply to them. But because neither the insurgents nor the Iraqi people distinguish between contractors and soldiers, what you have in Iraq today is a situation in which perhaps 25-percent of the perceived coalition “force” is operating outside the chain of command, and in violation of the stated strategy.
That means that in the neighborhoods of Baghdad, our soldiers are exercising deadly restraint to win over the population, day after day, for months and weeks on end — and all of their work can unravel, all of their sacrifices thrown to the wind because of just one shooting incident carried out by private mercenaries. This is unacceptable — not least because the resulting effect is an increase in risks for our soldiers.
And this is a problem that is going to get potentially more serious as time goes by since the COIN manual makes non-military work the exit strategy. As security is reestablished, the work of local reconstruction — which requires the assistance of a full range of American non-military personnel, including the State Department — becomes the main the focus. Those people need protection — and that protection is going to give a lot of firepower to the insurgency.
U.S. government personnel — and the security contractors that protect them — are going to have to accept many of the same risks that the military have to accept. We must find a way to integrate them more fully and cohesively into the military chain of command.
The COIN manual does an excellent job of preparing soldiers for a whole host of non-military activities. The question it leaves unanswered, but that it must answer, is how to control the military activities of those who are not soldiers.
–Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He just returned from an extended embed in Iraq.