Sure, He's Got Guns for Hire. But They're Just Not Worth It.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

To: Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense

cc: Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State

Subject: Breaking Our Blackwater Addiction

The more we hear about the deadly Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad involving contractors from the private military firm Blackwater USA, the worse it sounds. Despite investigations by the Iraqi government, the FBI and your department and last week's House hearings, we may never fully know what happened in the chaos that hospital records show left at least 14 Iraqis dead and 18 wounded. (The contractors claim that they were fired on first, while Iraqi witnesses and officials say that the Blackwater guards opened fire on a small car, carrying a couple and their child, that wouldn't get out of the way in a busy traffic circle.) But by now, we do know a great deal about the business of relying on hired guns -- more than enough to convince you that the Pentagon and State Department urgently need to change their ways.

By your own department's count, more than 160,000 for-hire personnel are working in Iraq today, which, amazingly, is greater than the number of uniformed military personnel there. These private forces perform all sorts of key functions, such as moving fuel, ammunition and food, as well as protecting top U.S. officials and guarding bases and convoys. Handing those tasks over to U.S. troops would further overstretch a military that you've warned is already dangerously overstretched. Hence the allure of outsourcing the jobs to private firms. But while we can't go to war without 'em, we also can't win with 'em. Our military outsourcing has become an addiction, and we're headed straight for a crash.

We've done poorly at a cold cost-benefit analysis here. It's far from clear that contractors save us money; when pressed on this score by the House last week, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince went from claiming cost savings to pleading ignorance of his own firm's profits. (He did, however, let slip that he makes at least $800,000 per year more than you do, for overseeing a force that's a tiny fraction of the size.) Oversight has been miserably lacking, as has the will to use civilian or military law to hold contractors accountable for bloody messes such as the Baghdad shootings. On balance, for all the important jobs that contractors are doing, Blackwater and its kin have harmed, rather than helped, our troops' counterinsurgency efforts.

* * *

In Iraq, the clear pattern shows that military outsourcing:

¿ Lets policymakers dodge tough, politically costly decisions, which makes for bad operational choices. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has sought to ensure that there's a link between the public and the costs of war, so that good decisions would be made and an ethos of responsibility fostered. With about half our operation in Iraq in private hands, that link has been jeopardized.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company