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.
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.