Mercenaries vs. Counterinsurgency
Blackwater could be a worse problem than you think.


Mario Loyola

Last week’s incident involving the Blackwater security firm received a lot of attention — and not as much as it deserves. Security contractors perform many vital functions, but in Iraq they are also undertaking roles of military significance outside the military chain of command. And that is asking for big trouble.

Security contractors invariably argue that they provide only defensive services, and do not undertake offensive operations. In a counterinsurgency battlespace, this is a distinction without a difference. In Iraq, driving down the street in an armed truck is an offensive operation. This is especially true because, as the Washington Post recently reported, the contractors are operating under rules of engagement that specifically acknowledge their right to take the actions necessary to defend themselves. And what does that mean? It means whatever the contractors reasonably think it means.

The problem is not that military rules don’t apply to the contractors, as the Post article claims, but rather that military strategy doesn’t apply to them.

Actions taken in self-defense are normally justified when necessary and proportional. It may well be that Blackwater satisfied that narrow rule. But these contractors are not simply going about their daily lives. They are careening loudly down the streets of Iraq at top speed, switching lanes into oncoming traffic at will, waving everything and everyone out of their way, pointing heavy machine guns at Iraqi cars heavily laden with women and children, with no regard for anything except to protect themselves and their charges. That is their job.

Hence, even if the facts of the most recent Blackwater shooting incident are in fact as Blackwater claims they are, there is still a big problem. The modus operandi of these contractors squarely contradicts some of the most essential elements of the current military strategy — the strategy that has produced all the good news we’ve heard out of Iraq this year.

The counterinsurgency (or “COIN”) manual says that the only way to separate the insurgents from the civilian population is to get the population on your side. From this premise follows a series of propositions that the manual itself calls paradoxical:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force….

Sometimes, the More Force is Used, the Less Effective It Is

1-150. Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal….

The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force Can Be Used and the More Risk Must Be Accepted

1-151. This paradox is really a corollary to the previous one. As the level of insurgent violence drops … rules of engagement may be tightened, and troops may have to exercise increased restraint. Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people.

Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction

1-152. Often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents … to react in a way that insurgents can exploit—for example, opening fire on a crowd…. If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects may result, an alternative should be considered—potentially including not acting.

Now think about that. The troops are expected not to act — even in their defense if more negatives than positives will result for the overall effort.