A corporate military monster is being created in Iraq.
The U.S. government is relying on private military contractors like never before.
Approximately 15,000 military contractors, maybe more, are now working in Iraq. The four Americans brutally killed and mutilated in Fallujah March 31 were part of this informal army of occupation.
Contractors are complicating traditional norms of military command and control, and challenging the basic norms of accountability that are supposed to govern the government's use of violence. Human rights abuses go unpunished. Reliance on poorly monitored contractors is bleeding the public treasury. The contractors are simultaneously creating opportunities for the government to evade public accountability, and, in Iraq at least, are on the verge of evolving into an independent force at least somewhat beyond the control of the U.S. military. And, as the contractors grow in numbers and political influence, their power to entrench themselves and block reform is growing.
Whatever the limitations of the military code of justice and its in-practice application, the code does not apply to the modern-day mercenaries. Indeed, the mechanisms by which the contractors are held responsible for their behavior, and disciplined for mistreating civilians or committing human rights abuses -- all too easy for men with guns in a hostile environment -- are fuzzy.
It is unclear exactly what law applies to the contractors, explains Peter W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors (Cornell University Press,
2003) and a leading authority on private military contracting. They do not fall under international law on mercenaries, which is defined narrowly. Nor does the national law of the United States clearly apply to the contractors in Iraq -- especially because many of the contractors are not Americans.
Relatedly, many firms do not properly screen those they hire to patrol the streets in foreign nations. "Lives, soldiers' and civilians' welfare, human rights, are all at stake," says Singer. "But we have left it up to very raw market forces to figure out who can work for these firms, and who they can work for."
There are already more than a few examples of what can happen, notable among them accusations that Dyncorp employees were involved in sex trafficking of young girls in Bosnia.
In general, the performance of the private military firms is horribly under-monitored.
Sometimes the lack of monitoring is a boon to the government agencies that hire the contractors. Although there are firm limits on the kinds of operations that U.S. troops can conduct in Colombia, Singer notes, "it has been pretty loosey-goosey on the private contractor side." The contractors are working with the Colombian military to defeat the guerilla insurgency in Colombia -- unconstrained by Congressionally imposed limits on what U.S. soldiers in Colombia may do.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, a problem of a whole different sort is starting to emerge.
The security contractors are already involved in full-fledged battlefield operations, increasingly so as the insurgency in Iraq escalates.
A few days after the Americans were killed in Fallujah, Blackwater Security Consulting engaged in full-scale battle in Najaf, with the company flying its own helicopters amidst an intense firefight to resupply its own commandos.
Now, reports the Washington Post, the security firms are networking formally, "organizing what may effectively be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence."
Because many of the security contractors work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, as opposed to the U.S. military, they are not integrated into the military's operations. "Under assault by insurgents and unable to rely on U.S. and coalition troops for intelligence or help under duress," according to the Post, the contractors are banding together.
Private occupying commandos? Corporate military helicopters in a battlefield situation? An integrated occupation private intelligence network?
Isn't this just obviously a horrible idea?
Given the problems that have already occurred in places like Colombia and Bosnia, the scale and now independent integrated nature of the private military operations in Iraq is asking for disaster, beyond that already inflicted on the Iraqis.
Making the problem still worse is that the monster feeds on itself.
The larger become the military contractors, the more influence they have in Congress and the Pentagon, the more they are able to shape policy, immunize themselves from proper oversight, and expand their reach. The private military firms are led by ex-generals, the most effective possible lobbyists of their former colleagues -- and frequently former subordinates -- at the Pentagon. As they grow in size, and become integrated into the military-industrial complex (Northrop Grumman has swallowed a number of the military contractors, for example), their political leverage in Congress and among civilians in the executive branch grows.
Over the last decade or so, the phenomenon of private military contracting has grown unchecked. We're now at a precipice, with action to constrain the contractors about to become far, far more difficult than if the madness of employing mercenaries had been averted in the first place.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org. They are co-authors of Corporate
Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe,
Maine: Common Courage Press; http://www.corporatepredators.org).
© Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman