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Private U.S. Contractors Back In The Spotlight In Iraq, Afghanistan

Private security guards pose on a Baghdad rooftop in September 2007.
Private security guards pose on a Baghdad rooftop in September 2007.
The legal fortunes of private security personnel engaged in U.S. war efforts took decidedly different turns this week.

But separate cases involving contractors working in Afghanistan and Iraq had at least one thing in common: They combined to heighten concerns over Washington's use of nonmilitary personnel to help fight its battles.

Both cases involve security personnel with ties to Xe Services, the largest of three private security firms employed by the U.S. State Department and much better known by its former name, Blackwater Worldwide.

On January 7, two U.S. nationals who worked for Paravant, an Xe subsidiary, were arrested by U.S. authorities on murder and weapons charges related to the shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians in Kabul in May.

The arrests came after a U.S. federal judge dropped manslaughter charges against four former Blackwater guards for their involvement in a 2007 shooting at a Baghdad square that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. On January 6, Xe settled multiple federal lawsuits filed on behalf of some of the victims' families.

Those cases, and others involving private security personnel, have complicated Washington's relations with both Baghdad and Kabul, and have led to questions over whether the legal tools are in place to hold such firms accountable for their actions in the theater of war.

In the case of Xe, which as Blackwater was kicked out of Iraq after the 2007 incident and changed its name in February 2009, the company appears to be under increased scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department.

Further highlighting the close working relationship between the U.S. government and private security companies was news that two Xe employees were among eight people killed in a suicide bombing near the southeastern Afghan province of Khost on December 30. Five of the dead were U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operatives, in addition to a Jordanian intelligence operative.

100,000 And Growing

In her opening statement to the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight on December 17, Senator Claire McCaskill (Democrat, Missouri) said that the number and cost of contractors in Afghanistan is projected to rise substantially with the anticipated increase in U.S. troops in the country.

"We know that there are more than 100,000 contractors currently working in Afghanistan," McCaskill said. "The number of Defense Department contractors alone may reach 160,000 in the next year."

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill
McCaskill then noted the key findings of her recent trip to Iraq. "I had many different things that happened on that trip that are seared into my hard drive," she told the subcommittee hearing.

"Realizations about the lack of coordination and organization between various pots of money," McCaskill said. "Amazing lapses in scoping contracts. And making contracts definite enough so that they can be enforced particularly, from any kind of accountability standpoint and the government getting their money back, when it had been abused and misused by contractors."

In 2008, the U.S. nonprofit Human Rights First estimated that there were "well over 200,000 U.S. government private contractors in Iraq, far greater than the number of U.S. military personnel."

Former European Union diplomat Martine van Bijlert, who spent years in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that contracting in general and security contracting in particular is a "big unknown."

Van Bijlert, who now works for the Afghan Analyst Network, a private nonprofit research group, says private contracting is a big issue for several reasons. "First of all, you have the issue of the [U.S.] Department of Defense contracting and then subcontracting a lot of its responsibilities and you lose some of the accountability there," she says.

"[Then] there is the issue of having international private security companies often acting on their own behalf -- acting with quite a sense of impunity as well -- as illustrates in incidents like the killing of local nationals and difficulties in bringing that to trial."

Short-Term Pressure

Van Bijlert suggests that the employment of local Afghan security firms is also a major, but less known, problem.

"You are arming and entrenching local armed groups," she says. "And where international groups...would leave -- they are [only] a problem as long as they are there -- the national groups will actually stay to be a problem potentially for quite a long while."

She suggests that, despite public pledges by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to change how U.S. troops and civilians operate on the ground, the administration is finding it difficult to change "patterns and relationships."

A recent report issued by Senator McCaskill's staff states that in the case of Afghanistan, the use of private contractors has risen sharply under the Obama administration.

“From June 2009 to September 2009, there was a 40 percent increase in Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan. During the same period, the number of armed private security contractors working for the Defense Department in Afghanistan doubled, increasing from approximately 5,000 to more than 10,000," the report states.

Van Bijlert says the Obama administration is under a lot of pressure to show short-term results, and "security concerns tend to override other concerns."

Van Bijlert argues that with the Afghan, American, and European public increasingly becoming aware of the problems associated with the hiring of private contractors in war zones, governments should keep accountability in mind when considering hiring more.

Van Bijlert notes that "One of the issues is that they cannot act with impunity," citing a "worst-case scenario" in which such individuals kill citizens and are not held accountable. "Another issue is [the] accountable spending of money."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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