Carter Andress is author of the new book Contractor Combatant: Tales of an Imbedded Capitalist. He’s an armed entrepreneur (and former Army infantry officer) living and working in Iraq as CEO of American-Iraqi Solutions Group. He took questions Monday from the Green Zone in Baghdad from National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is a “contractor combatant”?
Carter Andress: My definition of a contractor combatant (and I can only give my definition as it is a new phenomenon to war) is a civilian who works in a war zone for a lawful belligerent in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, yet taking the place that in past history would be served by an armed soldier.
Lopez: How many of you are there?
Andress: My understanding is there are approximately 20,000 armed contractors serving in Iraq of which about 5,000 are Westerners (primarily U.S., British, and Australian).
Lopez: If you are such a capitalist: Isn’t there more money to be made where people aren’t shooting at you?
Andress: The interesting aspect to those of us serving as contractor combatants — in general — in Iraq is that we are here either first for the mission, driven by 9/11, and second for the money, or vice versa. But nevertheless the capitalist (moneymaking) aspect is mitigated by the mission. There has to be something driving you more than money because the competition is out trying not to just kill your business . . . but you.
Lopez: What is AISG and why should Americans care about it?
Andress: American-Iraqi Solutions Group (AISG) is a U.S. Department of Defense contractor that undertakes construction and logistics primarily in support of the Iraqi security services. We are one of the keys to standing up the Iraqi military and police thereby providing the exit strategy for US combat forces to leave Iraq. Therefore if we, and the few other companies like us, succeed then the U.S. will be victorious in the Iraq war.
Lopez: How many Iraqis care about it?
Andress: First of all, we have effectively fed, supplied, and housed tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and policemen located throughout Iraq for over three years now. Our workforce is more than 90-percent Iraqi citizen. We directly employ almost 1,000 Iraqis — Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd — even more including our subcontractors and vendors and this in turn feeds thousands more in their families.
Lopez: How many “near catastrophes” have you had?
Andress: Once you have been out on the roads with the Baghdadi drivers you might feel like every venture out is a near catastrophe. But our approach to security is low-profile, “Iraqified,” if you may. We are very successful at avoiding the enemy — if they can’t pick you out of the flow then they don’t know to attack you. But nevertheless I have been shot at a couple times, been surrounded by potentially hostile police in downtown Fallujah, had rockets and mortars land nearby, and had at least two road-side bombs explode on my route within sight. The risk is real, but avoidable if you’re very careful about how you move.
Lopez: What’s your average Baghdad day like?
Andress: Now that I am CEO of AISG and no longer in charge of operations when I had to work every day to keep the trains on time, so to speak, I spend a great deal of my day in the office doing normal executive work, albeit my windows are sandbagged and the building is surrounded with guards and machineguns outside the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. I keep an eye on cash flow, deal with any extraordinary personnel issues (always a challenge with our multinational workforce), but most importantly I strive to ensure that every one of our departments keeps everyone else in the loop because we have so much going on that is moving so quickly. Every day but Friday (when we take the morning off) I start the day with an 8 am staff meeting and then close up shop at 11 pm. My favorite part of each day is when I go out on a walkabout and check the guards (all-Iraqi) and our logistics staging area that is always hopping with trucks and equipment be trans-loaded for shipping into the Sunni Triangle and the greater Baghdad area to one our eight active work sites.
Lopez: How long have you been in Iraq? How long will you stay?
Andress: I first came to Iraq in January 2004 and lived in Baghdad full time until the end of June 2005. I then went back to the U.S. to write my book, spend time with wife and my children, until I got called back in November of 2006 and have been here ever since, with a couple two-week vacations.
I plan to stay as long as the Iraqis will let me.
Lopez: How’s the surge going from where you sit?
Andress: From our perspective the surge is getting the job done on the security front. We built two camps for the additional Iraqi soldiers entering the capital as part of the surge. Our part of central Baghdad has never been quieter since the beginning of January 2004. The active operations of the US forces have enabled the Iraqi security forces to establish control over the streets; Iraqi checkpoints are now everywhere and they are being controlled by a central operations center run by Iraqis. Al Anbar — formerly the heartland of the insurgency — where we operate an Iraqi army base in Habbaniya and just got finished constructing and are now running the Al Anbar police academy is now quiet after the local tribes turned against al Qaeda.
Lopez: Is there an accompanying economic surge?
Andress: Business goes on, seemingly growing in volume every day. We are having more and more suppliers approach our company. The Sunnis who had prospered under Saddam and then fled primarily to Amman, Jordan, are now re-entering the marketplace. The real threat to the Iraqis is the al Qaeda, non-Iraqi suicide car bomber and the Iraqis continue on, mourn the dead, but life and business goes on. The Iraqis are incredibly hard working and talented people — all we need is for the security situation to stabilize further — and we will see huge economic growth just from their intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit, I believe.
Lopez: What do you base your assessment that “the vast majority of Iraqis — Shia, Kurds, and most secular Sunni Arabs — want America to succeed in helping to establish a peaceful, democratic Iraq, fully integrated into the world economy” on?
Andress: I am not saying that the Iraqis appreciate having an armed foreign force patrolling there streets. Not at all. What I am saying is that we share the same common goals. The Iraqi government came into power through a UN-certified election participated in by a higher voting percentage than what we see in the US. My above statement is part of the platform upon which the Iraqi government rests its position and derives its authority.
Lopez: Why do you consider yourself qualified to make such an assessment?
Andress: My assessment is based on the thousands of Iraqis of all sects and ethnic backgrounds with whom I have worked closely in the war zone over the last four years. From our company compound that formed part of the security buffer for a polling station located in our neighborhood school, I watched thousands of Iraqis risk life and limb to vote in the first free national elections in their history. I have been studying the Middle East for over twenty years and have a master’s in history from American University in Washington, D.C. Thus I have added an academic approach — research intensive — to my practical experience.
Lopez: What’s the most encouraging thing Americans should know about Iraq? Something you’d like ever member of Congress to know.
Andress: We are winning this war because the Iraqi people are risking their lives every day to achieve the same goals the American people have in Iraq and the primary threat to those goals comes from al Qaeda foreigners, not sectarian conflict.
Andress: The lack of will among many of our political leaders to see the course through to the end and allow us as a nation to be terrorized into retreating before our enemy — al Qaeda — just when they have begun to stand alone, stripped of allies, in a country beginning to enjoy the fruits of a democracy we have sacrificed much blood to help create.
Lopez: You import “exotic gourmet vodka”? What’s so special about it? Where can we get a bottle?
Andress: Zhitomirska Jubilee “Z” Vodka, the first vodka from Ukraine ever imported into the U.S., was ranked number-one in a taste test by the Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money magazine, which described it as: “deliciously smooth.”
Please check www.zvodka.com for sales locations. I can get a bottle shipped to you if there is not a store near you.
Lopez: Does it bother you that you can’t get them to serve it at the Al-Rashid Hotel bar in Baghdad?
Andress: The vodka business was — in a small way — part of breaking apart the Soviet Union and standing up independent Ukraine. That’s what it means to me here in Iraq. As you never know what the combat zone will bring, and that includes getting home from the Al Rashid, we stay bone dry.