Make armed contractors a part of the solution

Contractors on the battlefield came to center stage this week not because Blackwater killed 11 Iraqi civilians, but because the unusually angry Iraqi government threatened to throw the company out of the country. Doing so would have brought U.S. political activity in Iraq to a standstill and degraded logistic support for many military missions. So as Congress takes long-overdue steps to address contractor accountability, it misses the bigger problem: The contractors we need in order to function overseas undermine overall national objectives.

This Private Military Corporation (PMC) conundrum is nothing new. Economic logic ever since Vietnam has led the U.S. to depend more and more on the private sector for critical logistic and security support during any contingency. If the contingency is a large-scale war like Iraq, the costs of such support are tremendous. The alternative, of course, would be keeping these capabilities on the federal payroll permanently, even during peacetime. The estimated 160,000 private contractors in Iraq will go off the roles at some point, and in theory save taxpayer dollars over the long term. Iraq will give us the first opportunity to test that theory.

Right or wrong, this economic logic was not complemented by strategic thought. It seems that no one asked how these private actors would support or undermine U.S. strategic objectives in carrying out the tactical duties for which they are hired. When we employ private companies for a specific task, that task becomes their only objective. Deliver the fuel. Get the ambassador to the meeting and back alive. For a close-protection detail, the measure of effectiveness is simple: client not dead. If you achieve this goal in ways that undermine U.S. strategic or operational objectives like “protecting the population” or “winning hearts and minds,” oh well. Losing a client is concrete and tied back to your contract and money. Losing some hearts and minds can’t really be measured and has no business ramifications.

Over two years ago in the Pentagon, I helped with an ultimately fruitless effort to fill the legal void in which PMCs operate and prevent their important efforts from unintentionally undermining U.S. strategic objectives. The legal void is simple: As it stands now, if a State Department contractor commits cold-blooded murder, no court or tribunal, American or Iraqi, has jurisdiction. Any U.S. soldier or Marine would be subject to a court-martial, any Iraqi or American civilian not with a PMC would be subject to Iraqi or American courts.

Congress may succeed in addressing this with legislation this week. But this impunity is only part of the problem. Contractors can also undermine commanders’ intent without committing any crimes. For example, if a commander wants to use dismounted patrols to build trust and gain information, his objectives will be undermined by aggressive PMC convoy activity.

Our solutions were twofold: First, a code of conduct for all PMCs contracting with the U.S. government; and second, formal in-country oversight by a U.S. civilian or military program manager. The code of conduct would standardize expectations across all PMCs, including legal obligations and jurisdiction, and have a mechanism for monitoring and enforcing compliance. Accepting it would be a prerequisite for any PMC seeking a U.S. contract. The formal in-country oversight would require companies to report through and have their performance measured by an American official.

Contractors today function virtually free of oversight, a terrible failing by the federal government, not the contractors. Our initial assessment at the time was that we did not need legislation to get these reforms through, just support from the State and Defense bureaucracies and leadership and cooperation from the PMCs.

The administration should have addressed these problems long ago, and when it failed to act, Congress should have turned up the heat. Now that threats from Baghdad have gotten everyone’s attention, the action should be deliberate. Punitive action won’t solve the problem, particularly if it drives PMCs out of some areas of operation.

PMCs are critical to the functioning of the U.S. government, many international organizations, the United Nations and others far beyond Iraq. They help weak governments like Liberia build responsible militaries and help food aid reach desperate populations in places like Darfur. The State Department and the Department of Defense employ PMCs around the world and must properly supervise and utilize them.

Congress should work with the administration to figure out what changes, if any, are needed in law to fill the legal and strategic voids that now plague America’s use of contractors. If no legal changes are needed, Congress should still mandate that the executive branch do its job by holding PMCs to defined standards with direct oversight.

PMCs already help American function overseas. With a few changes they can help us succeed.

Singh is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Pentagon official.