Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This round goes to Gates

The Department of Defense and the State Department agreed on Tuesday that the DoD would assume a greater role in the oversight and management of armed security personnel operating in Iraq.

The DoD has wanted greater control over the mercenaries who run in and out of the battle space wreaking havoc since the earliest days of the occupation. Blackwater alone has been involved in over 190 incidents in which they discharged their weapons since 2005, and have earned a reputation as trigger-happy thugs who undermine the mission (whatever it is this week). The most recent incident, on September 16, left 17 Iraqis dead and started a deluge of bad publicity for Blackwater, including charges of weapons smuggling, theft of military aircraft, and tax evasion.

The rate of Blackwater violence is at least twice that of DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, the other security companies operating in Iraq. Blackwater’s hired guns are just that, discharging weapons, on average, twice every convoy. (The other companies frequently escort convoys completely without incident.)

“You can find any number of people, particularly in uniform, who will tell you that they do see Blackwater as a company that promotes a much more aggressive response to things than other main contractors do,” a senior American official said. “Is it the operating environment or something specific about Blackwater?” asked one government official. “My best guess is that it is both.”

While the bloody rampage at the Nissour traffic roundabout was the most shocking in the level of wanton killing, the modern-day Pinkerton's of Blackwater are under investigation in six other episodes that left ten people dead and at least 15 wounded.

Slowly, American officials are accepting the position that Blackwater's behavior in Iraq is counterproductive to the stated 'mission' by fueling resentment among the local population.

“They’re repeat offenders, and yet they continue to prosper in Iraq,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has been broadly critical of the role of contractors in Iraq. “It’s really affecting attitudes toward the United States when you have these cowboy guys out there. These guys represent the U.S. to them and there are no rules of the game for them.”

[keep reading]

Currently, there are approximately 10,000 armed mercenaries running around Iraq, under contract to various branches of the United States government and NGOs. I know it sounds bizarre, but there is no central oversight authority to which they must answer.

Pragmatically, it just makes sense to bring all armed civilians who are under contract to American government agencies and NGOs, as well as the American military under one authority. It would mean, effectively, that those armed civilians would no longer have multiple bosses at multiple levels and a disparate set of rules. Pentagon officials say it would allow for better coordination and communications between the American military and the private security personnel.

When contractors get in trouble, they call on the US military to bail them out. Fully 30% of the incidents in which the military was called on to save mercenary bacon involved movements and convoys that the military was not even aware had mobilized.

American commanders often perceive the private security personnel in an adversarial light. Civilian casualties, victims of mercenary gunfire, infuriate the Iraqi government and damage the American perception and image among the locals. This frustrates military officers who say the heavy-handed, shoot-first-and-don’t-even-bother-to-ask-questions-later tactics by mercenaries undermine the broader mission.

Also on Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament hammered out draft legislation that would repeal Order 17, the imperialistic, extraterritorial immunity granted to mercenaries by Paul Bremmer on his way out of town when the CPA turned over authority to the Iraqi government. Order 17 exempts mercenaries who commit wanton murder of Iraqi civilians (and any other crimes) from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

It was already a given that State was not going to be of much help to their hired guns. Indeed, it has been known for a while now that Blackwater is on it's way out of Iraq, and State will not be renewing their contracts. But the constant barrage of evidence pointing up the incompetence and fecklessness of the State Department under Condi Rice, including the revelation less than 24 hours before the agreement was made that State Department investigators had sanctioned Blackwater lawlessness by routinely issuing immunity to mercenaries involved in shooting incidents, Gates got less resistance from State than was expected.