After raking in more than a billion dollars from its contracts in Iraq, Blackwater is finally being forced to leave the country that it has terrorised for so long. But the notorious mercenary firm's departure will likely have more symbolic significance than any real impact on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis.
First, only Blackwater as a corporate entity - which just changed its name to Xe in an effort to shake its bad reputation - is being given the boot. Iraqi officials have said that its operatives will be allowed to stay in the country by switching companies, as long as they have clean records. While this sounds reasonable, making that determination will be next to impossible. According to US officials and the contractors themselves, the actual number of shootings in Iraq by private military companies is far higher than is publicly acknowledged and they are rarely reported by the individuals involved.
Second, Blackwater never was a lone bad apple. The entire mercenary industry is rotten and needs to be discarded. Consider Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, the two mercenary outfits that will be filling the hole left by Blackwater. In 1999, for example, Dyncorp employees were implicated in a sex ring in Bosnia that involved the trafficking of women and children as young as 12 years old. When whistleblowers came forward to expose these heinous crimes, they were promptly fired.
And there is no sign that firm has cleaned up its act in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US state department has repeatedly rebuked Dyncorp for being unprofessional and "too aggressive". In one embarrassing incident, a BBC correspondent actually saw a guard from the company slap the Afghan transport minister.
By comparison, Triple Canopy is a relative newcomer to the mercenary business. With hopes of cashing in on the most privatised war in history, the company was founded immediately after the invasion of Iraq by three US special forces veterans. According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (pdf), Triple Canopy relies far more heavily on so-called "third-country nationals" to cushion its bottom line than either Dyncorp or Blackwater. Paid only $33 a day, these hired guns come largely from developing countries - especially those in Latin America - that have histories of human rights abuses.
Much like Blackwater, Triple Canopy was involved in one of the most infamous shooting sprees of the war in Iraq. On 8 July 2006 - after remarking "I want to kill somebody today" - a heavily armed Triple Canopy guard in Iraq reportedly shot multiple rounds into the windshield of an unthreatening pickup truck and later a taxi for amusement.
Many argue, including President Barack Obama, that these mercenaries can be reined in through the creation of a legal framework that can hold them accountable for any wrongdoing. The notion, however, that these hired guns - who number in the tens of thousands and are often better armed than US soldiers - can somehow be effectively monitored and brought to justice in the middle of a war zone is pure fantasy.
The only real solution to this mess is for either Iraq or the US to ban armed contractors altogether. The Stop Outsourcing Security Act would accomplish this by mandating "that all diplomatic security in Iraq be undertaken by US government personnel within six months of enactment." The legislation also states that "the use of private military contractors for mission critical functions" in all conflict zones where the US is active must be phased out over a longer timeline.
Hillary Clinton offered a glimmer of hope when she endorsed this bill during her campaign for the presidency. But as Obama's secretary of state, she has quickly abandoned her commitment to "show these contractors the door". Unfortunately for Iraqis, it looks like the mercenary industry will have little to fear from the new administration.