After ten years of operation by private military and security (PMSC) contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, what ethical lessons should we draw from their use?
Namely, that private sector contracting has become an integral part of modern international operations, and in Afghanistan and Iraq contracting has been largely fruitful, despite some well-publicized problems and the enormous difficulties inherent to reconstructions in the midst of violent conflicts.
At least, that is the view of Doug Brooks and Mackenzie Duelge, who co-wrote Chapter 12 in the book Conflict Management and "Whole of Government": Useful Tools for U.S. National Security Strategy? which was recently published by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute.
Considering that Chapter 12 is best known as a chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, the authors may have wished for another chapter number. On the other hand, considering the gap between some claims and evidence, perhaps it is appropriate.
Mr Brooks is president of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), well known as a PMSC trade group, or as his bio puts it, "a nongovernmental, nonprofit, nonpartisan association of service companies dedicated to providing ethical services to international peacekeeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian rescue, stabilization efforts, and disaster relief."
Ms. Duelge is a member of the Georgia Bar Association and is working on a Ph.D. in international conflict management at Kennesaw State University.
As you might expect, the authors find that thanks to the use of contractors, "the level of support for the troops has been unmatched in history, and significant support, reconstruction, and development goals were achieved in the midst of war."
Of course, as the United States is well on its way to losing in Afghanistan one wonders how significant an achievement that is. On the other hand, one shouldn't blame a tool for the mistakes of the operator.
Still, since many military and civilian officials will be reading this book let's consider what they write.
Much of what they write is largely true, if not the exact truth. For example, consider this point:
The role of the private sector in Afghanistan and Iraq has been misunderstood by many analysts and journalists, and thus, predictably, it has also been mischaracterized by the media (albeit sometimes intentionally to ensure a sensational impact).
The authors are correct in writing that over the years, lots of misleading and false information has been said and written about the role and activities of various PMSC. On the other hand claiming that analysts and journalists "intentionally" mischaracterize the PMSC role to ensure "sensational impact" is a pretty sensational charge itself. Tellingly, that sentence does not have a single reference to corroborate that claim.
Similarly, the next sentence, "There has been an improvement in recent coverage, especially since the heady days of 2004-08 when coverage of the industry was dominated by glaringly exaggerated accounts focused on Western private security companies (PSCs)," also has no reference to any specific exaggerated accounts.
One can't help but wonder what "exaggerated" coverage they have in mind during that time period; perhaps, the high-profile killing of Blackwater contractors at Fallujah; involvement of CACI and Titan contractors with the torture and other abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, or the shooting of Iraqi civilians at Nisoor Square in Baghdad in 2007.
They then write:
Western employees of PSCs earned the majority of the media coverage while comprising a tiny percentage of the actual contractors (less than 3 percent)2 working in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is no wonder that any subsequent analysis was skewed as a result.
Here they actually give a reference so let's examine it. Their endnote references the Pentagon's Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) database which tracks contractors working for the Defense Department. They go on to say that the numbers have been challenged by "some journalists and academics." Evidently the authors managed to miss out on the numerous Government Accountability Office reports which have documented problems with the SPOT database. In any event SPOT has nothing to do with media coverage of contractor activities.
The authors also wrote: "When discussing private security contracting, problems are generally split into three categories: waste, fraud, and abuse. By far the biggest drain on stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has come as a result of waste."
Actually, those are problems with all aspects of PMSC, not just security contractors. But they are correct in saying the issue of waste, mostly due to inept planning by the client, the U.S. government, has been underappreciated. They cite the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose final report was issued last year.
That CWC report noted that "wartime-contracting waste in Iraq and Afghanistan ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent of the $206 billion spent since fiscal year (FY) 2002, projected through the end of FY 2011. The Commission also estimates that fraud during the same period ran between 5 and 9 percent of the $206 billion." That latter percentage ranges runs between $10.3 and $18.5 billion.
It is true that waste is approximately twice as great a problem but it is just false to say it has been ignored. To make such a statement with a straight face would mean one would have to ignore the numerous reports issued over the years by such agencies as the Special Inspector General for Iraq, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, Department of Defense Inspector General, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, to name but a few oversight agencies.
The also show a certain selectivity in their choice of evidence to back up their claims. They cite reports from a group called Taxpayers for Common Sense as being illustrative of a "typical 'blames the contractors perspective." Putting aside the fact their endnote only cites one report it ignores the fact that over the years there have been numerous well documented reports by a wide variety of NGO and think tanks, such as CorpWatch, Center for a New American Security, Center for American Progress, RAND, and the Project on Government Oversight (which, in the interest of full disclosure, published a report I wrote last year) documenting problems with PMSC use. None of them were out to get contractors. Mr. Brooks would be familiar with the one produced by CNAS since he was a member of one of its working groups.
While there are other problems with the chapter I think you get the point.
It was probably too much to hope that a chapter that was co-written by someone who heads a well-known PMSC trade association, funded by PMSC companies, to come up with a dispassionate appraisal of the pros and cons of the PMSC industry. Still, despite its somewhat self-serving nature it is, if nothing else, a useful illustration of the pity-me-pity-me-the-big-bad-mainstream-media-is-out-to-get-us attitude that some in the industry still, unfortunately, hold. As such, it does have a certain amusement value.