The danger of hired guns

Private security contractors are set to make up half of the military presence in Afghanistan, but has the US lost control of them?

Seventeen Iraqi civilians were killed in Nisoor Square, Baghdad, on 16 September 2007. Some of the bodies were so badly shot up and burned that they had to be identified by their dental records. Guards from the private security firm Blackwater were accused of shooting randomly at the civilians as their convoy passed by, while the company insisted they were responding to an ambush.

Last week a US judge dismissed the charges against the guards on the grounds of procedural errors. The Iraqi government, perhaps also looking to score nationalist points as an election looms, was outraged. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh accused the men of committing a “serious crime” and Prime Minister Maliki warned that “whether in the United States or in Iraq, we will not give our rights up”.

As inertia continues to characterise the Middle East peace process and outreach to Iran and Syria, the Blackwater case casts more doubt on the ability of the Obama administration to live up to the rhetoric the president outlined in Cairo when he spoke of mutual “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. There is a shameful irony that the “new Iraq” is now criticising America on the basis of human rights and justice, with the Iraqi human rights minister, Wejdan Mikhail, saying she was “astonished” by the US decision to dismiss the case.

The role and remit of private security contractors in America’s wars remain highly contested. The animosity felt towards these contractors in Iraq, in particular, is hard to exaggerate. The Iraqi war fired the starting gun for the mass privatisation of war – the burgeoning of private security companies staffed by ex-soldiers from armies across the world parodied in the John Cusack film War, Inc.

It was the killing of contractors that sparked the twin battles of Fallujah, the most deadly single battles of the occupation to date. Foreign Affairs reported that contractors were involved in 36% of cases in the Abu Ghraib incidents; and the recent release of Peter Moore was linked to the discovery by the Guardian that his four contractor guards were killed because they were seen as legitimate combatants. Much of the hatred of contractors is blamed on the perception of them as trigger-happy, especially when they are guarding convoys. This view was reinforced by multiple video clips, some on companies’ own websites, showing what appear to be contractors firing indiscriminately at cars

The ability to prosecute US contractors was a key sticking point in the prolonged debate over the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), which finally allowed US troops to be tried in Iraqi courts, but only in cases of serious, premeditated crimes committed while soldiers were off-base and off-duty. Private contractors, previously immune to prosecution in Iraq, became wholly bound by Iraqi laws.

Some may be surprised that the death of 17 Iraqi civilians has created such a stir considering that between 94,939and 650,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003. Yet this particular case has become a test of the untangling of the US occupation of Iraq and the restoration of the country’s sovereignty. After all, despite Saddam Hussein’s killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, it was the deaths of 96 people from Dujai that sent him to the gallows.

Scott Horton, an attorney specialising in international law, told Democracy Now that the procedural failure of the Blackwater case “almost looks like the Justice Department prosecutors here wanted to sabotage their own case, it was so outrageous”. But why would a government undermine its own case? Perhaps it is worried about what Erik Prince, chief executive of Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) could reveal about the the inner workings of CIA and military operations across the globe.

The Iraqi government clearly hasn’t given up on the case and is now looking into alternative civil suits against the firm. Meanwhile, despite the work in Iraq drying up and the lack of immunity protection, contractors are moving over to the lucrative war in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is reported that private contractors will make up at least half of the total military workforce in Afghanistan, according to Defense Department officials cited in a new congressional study. With the rule of law far weaker in the more chaotic Afghanistan arena, the question is what guarantees are in place for preventing another Nisoor Square massacre?