Cowboy Contractors: Armed and Dangerous

With increasing use of private military contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, does the US government have proper oversight?

A light-gold Toyota Corolla shipped from Kabul, Afghanistan, to a court house in Norfolk, Virginia, was the centre-piece for a jury trial last week
on the alleged murder of two Afghan civilians on 4 May 2009 by two
former employees of a subsidiary of Blackwater, the private military

Fareed Haji Ahmad, the driver of the Corolla that night,
was also brought from Kabul to testify. He was injured in a hail of
bullets fired by Christopher Drotleff and Justin Cannon, the two US
citizens on trial for murder. His passenger Romal Mohammad Naiem was
killed, as was a passer-by named Rahib Mirza Mohammad.

Virginia jury listened to testimony from Karim Dad Mohibi, the Afghan
bartender of the Oase German restaurant at Camp Warehouse who served
beer to a group that included Drotleff and Cannon on the evening of the
killings. The jury also stepped out of the court room to view the bullet
holes in the trunk of the car.

"They were drinking. They were driving. They were armed and they were out of control," said Robert McGovern,
an attorney for the US department of justice, which filed the lawsuit.
"They were not soldiers and they were not on a mission. They were
contractors who were making their own rules that night."

By coincidence, the murder trial opened almost exactly three years to the day that 17 Iraqis were killed by a group of Blackwater guards in Nisour Square, Baghdad.

Rights First, a New York-based group, says that these two incidents
show why the government needs to strengthen the rules on oversight and
coordination over private security contractors in war zones. "Congress
and the administration must work together to put solutions in place
before additional contractors are deployed," says Melina Milazzo, author of a new Human Rights First report titled "State of Affairs".

murder is the focus of the Norfolk trial, and the question of whether
the men were drinking and driving is another aspect of the trial, there
are even more critical issues at stake - such as proper authorisation to
carry weapons and the fact that the company may have taken the guns
illegally from Afghan police stockpiles.

Cannon and Drotleff worked for company called Paravant,
one of 30 or so subsidiaries created by Blackwater in the wake of the
Nisour Square killings, in an apparent attempt to avoid the infamy that
accompanied their own brand name. (Blackwater has even renamed itself Xe
to distance itself from its past.)

Paravant officials did not have permission to carry weapons. (A 6 November 2008 email from Paravant vice-president Brian McCracken states:
"I got sidearms for everyone... We have not yet received formal
permission from the army to carry weapons yet but I will take my

In fact, Paravant had acquired the weapons from a place
called "Bunker 22", where weapons and ammunition are stored for use by
the Afghan National Police. A 19 November 2009 letter from General David Petraeus
specifically confirms that "there is no current or past written policy,
order, directive, or instruction that allows US military contractors or
subcontractors in Afghanistan to use weapons stored at 22 Bunkers."

of the most bizarre part of this story is the fact that Paravant had
been hired for the specific purpose of teaching the Afghan national army
how to use their weapons safely. Not that Cannon and Drotleff were role
models - both had been discharged from the US Army and been in trouble for matters like reckless driving and testing positive for cocaine.

After the killings, Paravant claimed it had returned the weapons, but an investigation by the senate armed services commission in January 2010, showed that company officials were still in possession of the weapons.

Larry Dash, one of Cannon's lawyers, told the jury
on Thursday that the men weren't properly trained, and they were scared
because they were in an area where troops have been fighting a
"nameless, faceless, merciless" enemy. Which suggests the question: if
they weren't trained, what were they doing there in the first place?

Given that the US government has been ramping up
the number of armed contractors in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, the
Obama administration would be well-advised to pay attention to the Human
Rights First report.

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