Friday, January 11, 2008

Securing Private Security

This charming recent piece in the New York Times provides yet another reminder - as if we needed one - that modern societies need to seriously re-think the roles played by private military contractors like Blackwater. It would appear that, in a 2005 incident, Blackwater forces attempted to use riot gas to clear traffic from an intersection in Iraq, in blatant and serious violation of U.S. military policy and (quite likely) international chemical weapons treaties. In addition to causing havoc and injury among local Iraqis who were doing nothing more provocative than commuting, the release of CS gas in this instance functionally disabled a group of U.S. soldiers manning a nearby checkpoint.

Stepping back from this one specific breach of sane conduct, this incident highlights, it would seem, much of what is wrong with the way private military contractors are currently used. The soldiers at the checkpoint, for example, apparently had no means of communicating with either the Blackwater helicopter that was dropping CS canisters, nor the convoy for which they were trying to clear the way. Everything I have read would indicate that, for all intents and purposes, private contractors operate as functionally separate from the Coalition forces in Iraq. It should come as no surprise, then, that the two groups often step on each other's toes. Because they are, evidently, only loosely integrated into the Coalition military command structure, they often take actions that are strategically counterproductive to the larger war effort. Looking again at the CS gas incident, the use of chemical weapons, and even smoke grenades, makes life harder for the Coalition by feeding enemy propaganda that the Americans are engaging in chemical attacks on Iraqi civilians. U.S. soldiers may make distinction between themselves and their private counterparts. The Iraqi populace, for the most part, does not.

As anyone who has not been living under a rock for the last year realizes, this is hardly the first time that the relative impunity with which private contractors in Iraq operate has caused problems (indeed, by the standards of some recent events, the CS incident is pretty benign). Some have proposed significantly scaling back the use of private contractors in war zones, saying that the regular military should be able to do more of the job. I am not entirely convinced that, in the long term, that is the right solution.

Some of the very structural issues that can make the use of private contractors problematic also make them potentially valuable assets for global peace and stability. As the World, or at least the Western World, begins to move into a post-modern age in which great power wars are of decreasing concern and the ability to raise and employ mass citizen armies is politically constrained, the ability of governments to augment their forces with private contractors provides an important buttress to the capacity of the state. It allows leaders to avoid the political costs of employing vast numbers of regular troops, most of whom have little choice in the matter, while still accomplishing policy goals.

Many people would say that is precisely the problem. Leader's shouldn't be able to mask the true cost of military conflict by outsourcing the fighting, but rather should have to prove to their populations that a particular military operation is worth sacrificing for. I am sympathetic to this argument. Certainly, the current administration's extensive employment of private contractors has allowed it to (badly) conduct a war that would have otherwise been politically unviable. That said, the smart use of private contractors could solve many of the problems traditionally associated with drumming up support for humanitarian missions and collective security. The Clinton Administration's reluctance to go into Rwanda in 1994 stemmed directly from the experience in Somalia. Casualties sustained by the military in Mogadishu had made humanitarian intervention unpalatable to the American public, and so the genocide was allowed to spin out of control, eventually engulfing all of central Africa in the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The hemming and hawing that accompanied other (marginally) more successful security missions in places like Bosnia and Kosovo stemmed in large part from the same issues, as has the anemic global response to the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

The reputation of many private military contractors - the detractors of whom make no bones about calling them "mercenaries" - has now been seriously damaged due to their association with various atrocities in the U.S.-occupied Middle East. In order to sufficiently rehabilitate them in the eyes of the world, and in order to ensure that they behave as professional soldiers, accountable for their actions, a global legal regime must be established to govern their use. I would suggest, for example, that they be subject to the military justice system of whatever legitimate military authority operates in their theater of war (in the case of the United States, this means the Uniform Code of Military Justice). Furthermore, steps need to be taken to be sure that there is a proper integration of private contractors into the military command and control structure, at least to the extent that it is compatible with their specific contracts. This would ensure that they do not operate as a force unto themselves and undermine the mission that they are hired to support. The UN, in particular, needs to formulate the institutional capacity to effectively, and safely, use private contractors in its security missions.

The world is changing, and I believe that the privatization of at least some state security functions in the twenty-first century is not ipso facto a bad thing. We must, though, adapt our military and legal institutions to face this new reality.

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