(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Whether the controversial U.S. private security company Blackwater leaves Iraq or not, the United States is unlikely to shake its dependence on civilians fighting its wars anytime soon.
The superpower is too hooked on hired help.
Even if there were political will to stop using civilians for roles previously carried out by the military, it would take years to reverse a relentless trend towards outsourcing that began with the end of the Cold War and has accelerated since.
For the first time in its history, the U.S. is fighting a war with more private contractors than military personnel. The ratio in Iraq is estimated at around 180,000 to 160,000.
Contrary to popular perceptions, only about 2,000 are doing the high-profile protection work for which Blackwater is known.
Estimates of other "arms bearing contractors" vary widely, from 13,000 to 30,000. The vast majority of the overall contractor force are Iraqis and nationals of 30-odd countries who perform a wide variety of largely logistics jobs, from cleaning toilets to driving trucks.
In the words of Peter Singer, a leading expert on the private security industry, America’s dependence on the private market "not only creates dangerous vulnerabilities but shows all the signs of the last downward spiral of an addiction."
The Army plans to grow its active force by 65,000 over the next four years and the Marine Corps by 27,000. But even then, the military will have to rely on private contractors in a war of the scale of Iraq.
The government’s rationale for outsourcing: it saves cost and increases flexibility - much like private corporations which slash their work forces and then outsource jobs to contractors working without health or pension benefits.
How badly reliance on contractors can backfire came into focus in mid-September, when Blackwater operators guarding U.S. diplomats opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square. When the shooting stopped, 17 Iraqi civilians lay dead and a furious Iraqi government demanded Blackwater’s prompt expulsion.
(Blackwater is still in Baghdad. Iraq became a sovereign country in June, 2004, but sovereignty has its limits.)
The Blackwater incident prompted a heated debate and a Congressional hearing in Washington which focussed on the company’s aggressive tactics but skirted discussion of a more basic question: why does the world’s mightiest military power need civilians to fight its wars and guard its diplomats?
ADDICTION FAR ADVANCED
It was under Bush that a civilian who had never heard a shot fired in anger, then deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, dressed down a four-star general for suggesting the post-combat occupation of Iraq required several hundred thousand troops.
Then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s estimate proved correct and it is ironic that the U.S. now has in fact a force of more than 300,000 in Iraq - the difference being that more than half of them are civilians.
The addiction Singer diagnosed is so far gone that some users of private contractors cannot even imagine a world without them, or a way to replace them. Listen to Washington’s ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, whose diplomats travel in Blackwater convoys an average of seven times every day.
"There is simply no way that the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq."
Ever? Ever is a long time. We are not talking about tens of thousands of men here, we are talking about less than 1,000. Is there a shortage of patriots willing to protect America’s top officials for public service pay?
Blackwater is in Iraq under a contract with the State Department and its operators have escorted American diplomats and VIPs travelling in Iraq for more than three years, in high-speed, get-out-of the-way-or-die motorcades that have become the stuff of legend in Baghdad.
By many accounts, the convoys are so deeply resented that they are setting back the overall U.S. military effort to win Iraqi hearts and minds.
Until mid-September, Blackwater’s aggressive tactics drew no complaints from the officials ferried from Baghdad’s Green Zone to appointments in the Red Zone that is the rest of Iraq.
Blackwater was complimented - not a single official killed or hurt while under the company’s protection.
THE WASHINGTON BLAME GAME
That changed after September. What followed was the time-honoured Washington pastime: the blame game.
The State Department ordered a review of the way its diplomats are protected, launched three investigations into the incident, and sounded faintly surprised that Blackwater would be capable of excess violence.
What? Blackwater guys are hated? Really? Even their peers in the industry consider Blackwater unusually aggressive. And this is the view of men not known for their gentle natures, or skill in peaceful conflict resolution.
Erik Prince, the company’s CEO, countered with a public relations offensive to convince a sceptical U.S. public, in a string of TV and newspaper interviews, that his company followed orders from the State Department, not the other way round.
What had been a close and apparently very happy marriage between Blackwater and the State Department has gone sour.
Signs point to a divorce in May. That’s when the company’s contract expires.
Blackwater’s loss of the contract would be the gain of the other two companies that provide protection services to the State Department, Triple Canopy and DynCorp.
The latter is one of the few publicly traded companies in the private security business.
The way its share price has developed shows that the financial markets see a rosy future for hired guns and other contractors: DynCorp shares are up almost 50% since the beginning of the year. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)