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A lesson from Iraq war: How to outsource war to private contractors

During the Iraq war, private defense contractors providing security and support outnumbered troops on the ground at points. Contractors can enhance US military capacity but also entail risks. US experience with private security contractors holds several key lessons.

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Some have speculated that this degree of outsourcing will end with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that assumption is unrealistic. The private military and security industry is now incredibly large, powerful, and – perhaps most important – adaptable. Rather than scaling back, the industry is broadening its territory, expanding into maritime security, providing security to business and governments in Africa, and exploring other new markets.

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Both to repeat the successes of private military contracting and to avoid the mistakes of contractors in the recent wars, the Department of Defense must consider several points specific to security contractors in particular.

First, security contractors can have a decisive impact on the perceptions of local citizens in the areas where they operate. This can be either useful or problematic for military forces on the ground, particularly when contractors are deployed alongside troops engaged in population-focused operations.

This was indeed a problem in Iraq. In a 2008 RAND survey, 35 percent of diplomatic personnel who had worked with armed contractors in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 reported having to manage the consequences of actions by armed contractors against local citizens. And nearly 40 percent had witnessed armed contractors acting in ways that were unnecessarily threatening, arrogant, or belligerent while deployed, including throwing objects at local civilians to clear them off roadways.

A complicating factor is that security contractors currently operate in something like legal “limbo.” There are no clear-cut guidelines for their status under international law, and many US laws don’t apply to non-US citizen contractors. But any provocative behavior by contractors has the potential to hinder military efforts.

For this reason, the United States must protect its interests and ensure that the contractors it employs are carefully vetted and well trained. It should also continue to work toward a commonly accepted means of holding contractors accountable for their behavior. One promising mechanism in this regard is the International Code of Conduct, which is being finalized by an international consortium of national governments, civil society organizations, and, as of now, 592 private security companies.

The US also needs to ensure that contractors and military forces can coordinate effectively when deployed together, and that civilian personnel operating on its behalf can easily be identified as friendly forces. At least 78 friendly-fire incidents in Iraq between November 2004 and August 2006 were reported to involve private security contractors; in 49 of those incidents, coalition forces fired at contractors.

Ten years on, the war in Iraq may have ended, but its impact on the way the US goes to war is far from over.

Molly Dunigan is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


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