An Assessment of the Private Military Industry and its Role in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


Naiomi Gonzalez is currently a doctoral student in history at Texas Christian University. She can be found on twitter at @AmericanUnInte1.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of the Private Military Industry and its Role in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Date Originally Written:  May 31, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  August 5, 2019.

Summary:  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required the support of the private military industry. However, the United States government’s increased reliance and dependency on private military firms has not been without controversy. In fact, the lack of accountability that has allowed certain sectors of the private military industry to act with impunity have arguably complicated the U.S. military’s already difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Text:  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the United States government’s increased reliance on private military firms to the forefront[1]. During the Vietnam War, it is estimated that there was 1 contractor for every 55 uniformed military personnel. In Iraq the ratio has hovered around 1 contractor for every 1 military personnel and in Afghanistan the number is 1.43 for every 1 military personnel[2]. During specific time periods, the number of contractors has even surpassed that of uniformed military personnel[3].

Private military firms undoubtedly provide much needed services and therefore, should not be discounted for their services. Private military firms, for instance, can draw on a large pool of expertise in a variety of fields while the military is limited by who they can recruit. This private military firm manpower flexibility is particularly important as technology continues to develop at a rapid pace. The Department of Defense (DoD), like most other government agencies, already heavily relies on the private sector to meet many of its technological needs. For example, the DoD has close relationships with many commercial agencies and contractors in order to develop and maintain the latest computer systems. If the DoD were to focus on developing their own computer systems, it would take about seven years for it to become operational. By that time the system would be obsolete and the efforts a waste[4]. For the DoD, which is often inundated by numerous other concerns and responsibilities, it makes sense to team up with private enterprises whose expertise lie in remaining on the cutting edge of new technological advances. Likewise, when it comes to maintaining the military’s vast and increasingly sophisticated technological arsenal, it benefits the DoD to hire contractors who already have years of experience on using and maintaining these specialized weapon rather than rely on military technicians who are most likely not trained in the nuances of a specific piece of equipment[5].

Another benefit of using contractors is that they provide a degree of political flexibility that enables political and military leaders to engage in policies the larger American citizenry might find objectionable. For instance, since the Vietnam War, Americans have shown a disdain for large scale conflicts that result in a large number of U.S. military causalities[6]. This low tolerance for long, drawn out wars became more pronounced as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, year after year. However, this aversion to American casualties does not always extend to those working as contractors, especially if those contractors are locals or third-world nationals. Because their roles in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is not always obvious, contractor deaths and injuries usually attract little attention. Exceptions to this disinterest usually center on particularly vicious deaths or injuries[7]. While not a panacea for increasingly unpopular wars, the use of contractors, especially in place of uniformed military personnel, ensures that extended conflicts remain palpable to the American public for a longer period of time.

However, the use of private military firms also comes with some severe drawbacks. On the economic front, their cost-effectiveness is in doubt. By 2012 the U.S. had spent about $232.2 billion on contractors and about $60 billion had been lost as a result of waste, fraud and abuse on the part of the contractors[8].

Much more concerning is the lack of accountability and impunity that has plagued the industry. In April 2004, CBS News published photographs showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American personnel. While media focus centered on uniformed American personnel who were abusing prisoners and on their courts martial, contractors also played a role in the scandal. Two private military firms, Titan[9] and CACI provided all of the translators and about half of the interrogators involved in the abuse case[10]. Yet no contractor was held legally responsible for their role in the abuse.

Private military provider/security firms have their own unique sets of issues and problems. While they make up the smallest number of contractors[11], the controversy they provoke belies their relatively small numbers. Blackwater Security[12] was the most notorious of these private military provider firms.

The 2007 Nisour Square case involving Blackwater helped spur the wider American population to question the utility of private provider/security firms. On September 16, 2007, Blackwater contractors shot, killed, and injured dozens of Iraqi civilians, in what they claimed was an act of self-defense[13].” The killings provoked widespread outrage. The Iraq government claimed, “The murder of citizens in cold blood…by Blackwater is considered a terrorist action against civilians[14]…” At that time, questions arose regarding whether private provider firms aid or hinder the United States’ mission in Iraq. Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that the provider firms’ singular focus on completing their mission, can at times mean that they are working “at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq[15].”

This obsession with ensuring that they complete their assigned task, no matter their costs, can be attributed to the for-profit nature of the companies and the personnel they hire, many of whom have a mission-focused mindset from their former military experiences. Before the Nisour Square incident, Blackwater took pride in its ability to get the job done, no matter what. Such a mindset ensured its success and profitability. However, the Nisour Square episode forced contractors, the government and the public at large to doubt the utility of such a mindset, especially when it results in the deaths of civilians, which only inflames anti-American sentiment. It is difficult to win “hearts and minds” by killing civilians. Moreover, the process of holding the contractors legally responsible for civilian deaths has met with many obstacles. The legal cases against four contractors involved in the Nisour Square incident has dragged on for years[16] while mainstream media attention has faded.

Private military firms have played vital roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their roles will only continue to expand. However, the U.S. government’s increased dependency on private military firms has not been without controversy or problems. These problems and controversies have hindered rather than aided the U.S. in completing their already difficult missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Endnotes:

[1] Peter W. Singer divides private military firms into three groups: military provider firms (aka private security firms), military consulting firms, and military support firms. While in some cases it is clear which firms fall into what category, in other cases the lines are more blurred as some companies take on a variety of roles. For an in-depth explanation of the different groups see Singer, P. W. (2008). Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press

[2] Taylor, W. A. (2016). Military Service and American Democracy: From World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (pg. 172) Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

[3] For instance, during the third quarter of fiscal year 2008, there were 162,428 total contractors in Iraq, compared to 153,300 uniformed military personnel. In Afghanistan the contrast in numbers is much more pronounced. During the fourth quarter of the 2009 fiscal year there were 104,101 total contractors compared to 62,300 uniformed personnel. See Peters, H. M., & Plagakis, S. (2019, May 10). Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44116.html

[4] Ettinger, A. (2016). The Patterns, Implications, and Risks of American Military Contracting. In S. V. Hlatky & H. C. Breede (Eds.), Going to War?: Trends in Military Interventions (pp. 115-132). Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stanger, A., & Williams, M. E. (Fall/Winter 2006). Private Military Corporations: Benefits and Costs of Outsourcing Security. Yale Journal of International Affairs, 4-19.

[7] For instance, on March 31, 2004 four Blackwater contractors were killed, dismembered and their body parts paraded through the streets of Fallujah. Blackwater faced criticism for its decision to send only four contractors instead of six into an incredibly hostile part of Iraq in jeeps that were armored only with one steel plate. See In Re: BlackWater Security Consulting LCC, http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/051949.P.pdf 1-28 (United Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit 2006).

[8] Taylor, 117. This number is most likely an undercount.

[9] In 2005 Titan was acquired by L3 Communications. See Staff, SSI. “L-3 Communications Agrees to Merger With Titan Corp.” Security Sales & Integration, Security Sales & Integration, 7 June 2005, www.securitysales.com/news/l-3-communications-agrees-to-merger-with-titan-corp/.

[10] Singer, P. (2005, April). Outsourcing War. Retrieved May 24, 2019, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2005-03-01/outsourcing-war.

[11] The number of private military provider/security firms peaked in Iraq at 15,000 individuals and in 2012 at 28,000. See Peters, H. M., & Plagakis, S. (2019, May 10). Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44116.html

[12] Blackwater was eventually sold and it underwent numerous name changes. It is currently called Academi. See Ukman, J. (2011, December 12). Ex-Blackwater Firm gets a Name Change, Again. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/ex-blackwater-firm-gets-a-name-change-again/2011/12/12/gIQAXf4YpO_blog.html

[13] A subsequent FBI investigation found the shooting to be unjustified. See Johnston, D., & Broder, J. M. (2007, November 14). F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause. Retrieved May 27, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/world/middleeast/14blackwater.html

[14] Tolchin, M., & Tolchin, S. J. (2016). Pinstripe patronage: Political favoritism from the clubhouse to the White House and beyond. Pg. 183 London, UK: Routledge.

[15] Spiegel, P. (2007, October 19). Gates: U.S., Guards are at Odds in Iraq. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-oct-19-na-blackwater19-story.html

[16] See Collins, M. (2018, December 19). Former Blackwater Guard Convicted of Instigating Mass Shooting in Iraq. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/12/19/iraq-war-jury-convicts-ex-blackwater-guard-second-time-massacre/1941149002/

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