Earlier this month, it came to light that a State Department security agent had testified that State Department officials interfered in the investigation of a 2007 massacre of 17 innocent Iraqis by Blackwater security guards. It’s just the latest revelation in a string of sticky issues—manslaughter, bribery, tainted evidence—related to Blackwater’s U.S.-directed operations in Iraq. And despite all their public problems, Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) is currently vying for a billion-dollar contract to train Afghan police officers.
Security contractors occupy a murky legal zone, seemingly unaccountable to either the host country’s laws or the U.S., which makes for a slippery chase when prosecuting crimes. With each new incident, the public scratches its head and asks, “Who are these guys and why can’t our own military take care of this stuff?”
That train has left the station, says Professor Kateri Carmola, whose new book, Private Security Contractors and New Wars: Risk, Law, and Ethics, is now on Amazon. The reasons are many, Carmola says, but contractors have been around for a while and are here to stay. In fact, the incidents that make news—usually something to do with the armed contractors—are just the very tip of the security contractor iceberg, which itself is just the tip of a huge and complicated contractor pyramid.
Carmola is especially interested in how perceptions of risk have played a hand in the big swing to private security firms. When she first began researching the topic, she thought the public’s distaste for casualties was the main driving force. By “outsourcing” the casualties to private firms (no flag-draped coffins or public funerals), government officials would have an easier time selling the war to the public. As she dug deeper, though, Carmola uncovered a complex and codependent web of insurance companies and security contractors that had sprung up, originally to fend off shipping piracy, but now extended to war zones.
A slimmer U.S. military is surely part of the growing reliance on contractors, but dramatically new models of modern warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have also upped the demand for private security companies. There’s even a new acronym for this kind of warfare: SSTAR, which stands for security, stabilization, transition and reconstruction. “All of those goals require a large presence of diplomats and civilian reconstruction forces, and all those require security,” says Carmola.
So unless we’re all surprised with a sudden epidemic of peace, don’t look for contractors or their scandals to go away anytime soon.