A team of six has arrived in Iraq with a mission few would envy. They are looking for new insights into how to deal with the contractor phenomenon. The Congress-appointed Commission on Wartime Contracting is trying to figure out how the U.S. government can do a better job overseeing the virtual shadow army that has arisen from the private sector in less than a decade.
The bipartisan committee, co-chaired by Michael Thibault and Christopher Shays, is housed in a modest office facility in Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. On a recent visit, I was struck by the enormity of the task they've been given, to report back to Congress on better ways to manage this force multiplier. It's a huge task, seeing as how there are now more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than there are U.S. troops.
"American taxpayers are paying for billions of dollars' worth of services from private security contractors," said Thibault, "but there are a lot of troubling questions about contract management and oversight, use of force, interagency coordination, use of subcontractors, and transition planning as the United States prepares to exit Iraq. We'll be looking at all of them to add to the knowledge gained from our stateside research and public hearings."
The government has been playing a game of catch up since private contractors were hired by the tens of thousands to do everything from logistics support to security in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But accountability has always been an issue, as there have been no clearly followed lines of legal accountability for contractors who do something wrong. Though there have been efforts to address that glaring gap over the years, there is still a stunning lack of prosecutions rising up from the contractor community. One of the questions that commission members and staff on the ground in Iraq this week are trying to get their heads around is just what work should be hired out in the first place. When it comes to hired guns, literally, should the U.S. be putting security on the battlefield in hired hands?
"There's a vigorous debate in policy circles whether or to what extent security can or should be contracted out in combat zones," said Shays. "As we saw in 2007 at Nisur Square in Baghdad, when private security guards killed or wounded 34 Iraqi civilians, contractor incidents can have a direct and devastating effect on United States objectives and public support for our presence. At the same time, properly managed contractors can reduce the strain on U.S. military personnel."
In September 2007, guards from the private security contractor Blackwater were involved in a shootout in the Baghdad neighborhood of Nisoor Square. 17 Iraqis were killed when the guards opened fire in the busy traffic circle. U.S. prosecutors tried to bring charges against 5 of the men after another one agreed to cooperate, but the case was thrown out earlier this year when a judge cited a lack of evidence. While there have been no prosecutions, the deadly incident fueled a passionate debate about how the U.S. should be using contractors overseas.
One of the men who has testified before the wartime committee, is Doug Brooks. As an early observer of the contractor phenomena, he was the push behind the development of the International Peace Operations Association, of which he is now president. He is a strong believer in the use of private contractors, but he insists that government has to realize its own obligations and there are limits to what IPOA can do.
"We can't throw anyone in jail," said Brooks, "ultimately governments have to step up to the plate."
Brooks notes that contractors aren't just taking risks and doing the dirty work in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they're all over Africa as well. On a recent visit to Sierra Leone, Brooks observed private contractors flying armed helicopters on resupply missions for United Nations troops. In Somalia, DynCorp offers support for the African Union peacekeeping mission. He worries that the Wartime Contracting Commission might come back with recommendations that could limit the extent of U.S. involvement abroad.
"You don't want to handicap U.S. policy by drawing a thick line so that we can't do work," said Brooks. "Whatever they decide how they will redefine inherently governmental, we have to be very careful not to step on our own feet and undermine U.S. International policy.
The committee is expected to make their recommendations to Congress next summer.