Let's be clear about what it is – when it comes
to "withdrawal" from Iraq – that the president will veto this Wednesday. Section
1904(b) of the supplemental appropriations bill for the Pentagon, H.R.
1591, passed by the House and Senate, mandates that the secretary of defense
"commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq not later than Oct.
1, 2007, with a goal of completing such redeployment within 180 days." If you've
been listening to network TV news shows or reading your local newspaper with
less than an eagle eye, you might well be under the impression that – just as
the phrasing above seems to indicate – a Democrat-controlled Congress has just
passed a bill that mandates a full-scale American withdrawal from Iraq. (Reporters
and commentators regularly speak of the Democrats' insistence that "American
troops be withdrawn from Iraq.") But that's only until you start reading
the exceptions embedded in the bill.
Here are the main ones. According to H.R. 1591, the secretary of defense is
allowed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for the following purposes:
1. "Protecting American diplomatic facilities and American citizens, including
members of the United States Armed Forces": This doesn't sound like much,
but don't be fooled. As a start, of course, there would have to be forces guarding
the new American embassy in Baghdad (known to Iraqis as "George
W's Palace"). When completed, it will be the largest embassy in the known
universe, with untold thousands of employees; then there would need to be forces
to protect the heavily fortified citadel of the Green Zone (aka "the International
Zone"), which protects the embassy and other key U.S. facilities. Add to these
troops to guard the network of gigantic, multibillion dollar U.S. bases in Iraq
Air Base (with air traffic volume that rivals Chicago's O'Hare) and whatever
smaller outposts might be maintained. We're talking about a sizable force here.
2. "Training and equipping members of the Iraqi Security Forces": By
later this year, U.S. advisers and trainers for the Iraqi military, part of
a program the Pentagon is now ramping up, should reach the 10,000-20,000 range
(many of whom – see above – would undoubtedly need "guarding").
3. "Engaging in targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to
killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with
global reach": This is a loophole
of loopholes that could add up to almost anything as, in a pinch, all sorts
of Sunni oppositional forces could be labeled "al-Qaeda."
An Institute for Policy
Studies analysis suggests that the "protection forces" and advisors alone
could add up to 40,000-60,000 troops. None of this, of course, includes U.S.
Navy or Air Force units stationed outside Iraq but engaged in actions in, or
support for actions in, that country.
Another way of thinking about the Democratic withdrawal proposals (to be vetoed
this week by the president) is that they represent a program to remove only
brigades," adding up to perhaps half of all U.S. forces, with a giant al-Qaeda
loophole for their return. None of this would deal with the heavily armed and
fortified U.S. permanent bases in Iraq or the air
war that would almost certainly escalate if only part of the American expeditionary
forces were withdrawn (and the rest potentially left more vulnerable).
No less strikingly, in an era in which the "privatizing" of state functions
is the rage, the enormous mercenary forces of private "security" companies like
Blackwater USA, now fighting a shadow war alongside U.S. troops in Iraq, would
be untouched. On this striking point Jeremy Scahill has much to say – and he
should know. He's the author of the surprise national bestseller, Blackwater:
The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which will shake
you to your combat boots when it comes to the nature of the mercenary age –
sorry, the age of "private security contractors" – that we've now entered. No
personal library that claims to make sense of our messy, bloody planet should
be without his book. Tom
Who Will Stop the U.S. Shadow Army in Iraq?
Don't look to the congressional Democrats
by Jeremy Scahill
The Democratic leadership in Congress is once
again gearing up for a great sellout on the Iraq war. While the wrangling over
the $124 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill is being headlined in the media
as a "showdown" or "war" with the White House, it is hardly that. In plain terms,
despite the impassioned sentiments of the antiwar electorate that brought the
Democrats to power last November, the congressional leadership has made clear
its intention to keep funding the Iraq occupation, even though Sen. Harry Reid
has declared that "this war is lost."
For months, the Democrats' "withdrawal" plan has come under fire from opponents
of the occupation who say it doesn't stop the war, doesn't defund it, and ensures
that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond President Bush's
second term. Such concerns were reinforced by Sen. Barack Obama's recent declaration
that the Democrats will not cut off funding for the war, regardless of
the president's policies. "Nobody," he said, "wants to play chicken with our
As the New
York Times reported, "Lawmakers said they expect that Congress and Mr.
Bush would eventually agree on a spending measure without the specific timetable"
for (partial) withdrawal, which the White House has said would "guarantee defeat."
In other words, the appearance of a fierce debate this week, presidential veto
and all, has largely been a show with a predictable outcome.
The Shadow War in Iraq
While all of this is troubling, there is another disturbing fact
which speaks volumes about the Democrats' lack of insight into the nature
of this unpopular war – and most Americans will know next to nothing about
it. Even if the President didn't veto their legislation, the Democrats' plan
does almost nothing to address the second largest force in Iraq – and it's
not the British military. It's the estimated 126,000 private military "contractors"
who will stay put there as long as Congress continues funding the war.
The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched by occupation personnel
that currently come from companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton
subsidiary KBR, which enjoy close personal and political ties with the Bush
administration. Until Congress reins in these massive corporate forces and the
whopping federal funding that goes into their coffers, partially withdrawing
U.S. troops may only set the stage for the increased use of private military
companies (and their rent-a-guns) which stand to profit from any kind of privatized
future "surge" in Iraq.
From the beginning, these contractors have been a major hidden story of the
war, almost uncovered in the mainstream media and absolutely central to maintaining
the U.S. occupation of Iraq. While many of them perform logistical support activities
for American troops, including the sort of laundry, fuel and mail delivery,
and food-preparation work that once was performed by soldiers, tens of thousands
of them are directly engaged in military and combat activities. According to
the Government Accountability Office, there are now some 48,000
employees of private military companies in Iraq. These not-quite GI Joes,
working for Blackwater and other major U.S. firms, can clear in a month what
some active-duty soldiers make in a year. "We got 126,000 contractors over there,
some of them making more than the secretary of defense," said House Defense
Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha. "How in the hell do you justify
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman
estimates that $4 billion in taxpayer money has so far been spent in Iraq on
these armed "security" companies like Blackwater – with tens of billions more
going to other war companies like KBR and Fluor for "logistical" support. Rep.
Jan Schakowsky of the House Intelligence Committee believes that up to 40 cents
of every dollar spent on the occupation has gone to war contractors.
With such massive government payouts, there is little incentive for these companies
to minimize their footprint in the region and every incentive to look for more
opportunities to profit – especially if, sooner or later, the "official" U.S.
presence shrinks, giving the public a sense of withdrawal, of a winding down
of the war. Even if George W. Bush were to sign the legislation the Democrats
have passed, their plan "allows the president the leeway to escalate the use
of military security contractors directly on the battlefield," Erik Leaver of
the Institute for Policy Studies points out. It would "allow the president to
continue the war using a mercenary army."
The crucial role of contractors in continuing the occupation was driven home
in January when David Petraeus, the general running the president's "surge"
plan in Baghdad, cited private forces as essential to winning the war. In his
confirmation hearings in the Senate, he claimed that they fill a gap attributable
to insufficient troop levels available to an overstretched military. Along with
Bush's official troop surge, the "tens
of thousands of contract security forces," Petraeus told the senators, "give
me the reason to believe that we can accomplish the mission." Indeed, Gen. Petraeus
that he has, at times, been guarded in Iraq not by the U.S. military, but "secured
by contract security."
Such widespread use of contractors, especially in mission-critical operations,
should have raised red flags among lawmakers. After a trip to Iraq last month,
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey observed
bluntly, "We are overly dependent on civilian contractors. In extreme danger
– they will not fight." It is, however, the political rather than military uses
of these forces that should be cause for the greatest concern.
Contractors have provided the White House with political cover, allowing for
a backdoor near doubling of U.S. forces in Iraq through the private sector,
while masking the full extent of the human costs of the occupation. Although
contractor deaths are not effectively tallied, at least 770
contractors have been killed in Iraq and at least another 7,700 injured.
These numbers are not included in any official (or media) toll of the war. More
significantly, there is absolutely no effective system of oversight or accountability
governing contractors and their operations, nor is there any effective law –
military or civilian – being applied to their activities. They have not been
subjected to military courts martial (despite
a recent congressional attempt to place them under the Uniform Code of Military
Justice), nor have they been prosecuted in U.S. civilian courts – and, no matter
what their acts in Iraq, they cannot be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. Before Paul
Bremer, Bush's viceroy in Baghdad, left Iraq in 2004 he issued an edict, known
17. It immunized contractors from prosecution in Iraq which, today, is like
the Wild West, full of roaming Iraqi death squads and scores of unaccountable,
heavily-armed mercenaries, ex-military men from around the world, working for
the occupation. For the community of contractors in Iraq, immunity and impunity
are welded together.
Despite the tens of thousands of contractors passing through Iraq
and several well-documented incidents involving alleged contractor abuses,
only two individuals have been ever indicted for crimes there. One was charged
with stabbing a fellow contractor, while the other pled guilty to the possession
of child-pornography images on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison. While dozens
of American soldiers have been court-martialed – 64 on murder-related charges
– not a single armed contractor has been prosecuted for a crime against an
Iraqi. In some cases, where contractors were alleged to have been involved
in crimes or deadly incidents, their companies whisked them out of Iraq to
As one armed contractor recently informed the Washington
Post, "We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason
something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put
you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the
night." According to another, U.S. contractors in Iraq had their own motto:
"What happens here today, stays here today."
Funding the Mercenary War
"These private contractors are really an arm of the administration
and its policies," argues Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has called for a withdrawal
of all U.S. contractors from Iraq. "They charge whatever they want with impunity.
There's no accountability as to how many people they have, as to what their
Until now, this situation has largely been the doing of a Republican-controlled
Congress and White House. No longer.
While some congressional Democrats have publicly expressed grave concerns about
the widespread use of these private forces and a handful have called for their
withdrawal, the party leadership has done almost nothing to stop, or even curb,
the use of mercenary corporations in Iraq. As it stands, the Bush administration
and the industry have little to fear from Congress on this score, despite the
unseating of the Republican majority.
On two central fronts, accountability and funding, the Democrats'
approach has been severely flawed, playing into the agendas of both the White
House and the war contractors. Some Democrats, for instance, are pushing accountability
legislation that would actually require more U.S. personnel to deploy
to Iraq as part of an FBI Baghdad "Theater
Investigative Unit" that would supposedly monitor and investigate contractor
conduct. The idea is: FBI investigators would run around Iraq, gather evidence,
and interview witnesses, leading to indictments and prosecutions in U.S. civilian
This is a plan almost certain to backfire, if ever instituted. It
raises a slew of questions: Who would protect the investigators? How would
Iraqi victims be interviewed? How would evidence be gathered amid the chaos
and dangers of Iraq? Given that the federal government and the military seem
unable – or unwilling – even to count how many contractors are actually
in the country, how could their activities possibly be monitored? In light
of the recent Bush administration scandal over the eight fired US attorneys,
serious questions remain about the integrity of the Justice Department. How
could we have any faith that real crimes in Iraq, committed by the employees
of immensely well-connected crony corporations like Blackwater and Halliburton,
would be investigated adequately?
Apart from the fact that it would be impossible to effectively monitor
126,000 or more private contractors under the best of conditions in the world's
most dangerous war zone, this legislation would give the industry a tremendous
PR victory. Once it was passed as the law of the land, the companies could
finally claim that a legally accountable structure governed their operations.
Yet they would be well aware that such legislation would be nearly impossible
Not surprisingly, then, the mercenary trade group with the Orwellian name of
the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) has pushed for just this
Democratic-sponsored approach rather than the military court martial system
favored by conservative Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. The IPOA called
the expansion of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act – essentially
the Democrats' oversight plan – "the most cogent approach to ensuring greater
contractor accountability in the battle space." That endorsement alone should
be reason enough to pause and reconsider.
Then there is the issue of continued funding for the privatized shadow forces
in Iraq. As originally passed in the House, the Democrats' Iraq plan would have
cut only about 15
percent or $815 million of the supplemental spending earmarked for day-to-day
military operations "to reflect savings attributable to efficiencies and management
improvements in the funding of contracts in the military departments."
As it stood, this was a stunningly insufficient plan, given ongoing events
in Iraq. But even that mild provision was dropped by the Democrats in late April.
Their excuse was the need to hold more hearings on the contractor issue. Instead,
they moved to withhold – not cut – 15 percent of total day-to-day operational
funding, but only until Secretary of Defense Robert Gates submits a report on
the use of contractors and the scope of their deployment. Once the report is
submitted, the 15 percent would be unlocked. In essence, this means that, under
the Democrats' plan, the mercenary forces will simply be able to continue business-as-usual/profits-as-usual
However obfuscated by discussions of accountability, fiscal responsibility,
and oversight, the gorilla of a question in the congressional war room is: Should
the administration be allowed to use mercenary forces, whose livelihoods depend
on war and conflict, to help fight its battles in Iraq?
Rep. Murtha says, "We're trying to bring accountability to an unaccountable
war." But it's not accountability that the war needs; it needs an end.
By sanctioning the administration's continuing use of mercenary
corporations – instead of cutting off all funding to them – the Democrats
leave the door open for a future escalation of the shadow war in Iraq. This,
in turn, could pave the way for an array of secretive, politically well-connected
firms that have profited tremendously under the current administration to
elevate their status and increase their government paychecks.
Consider the case of Blackwater
A decade ago, the company barely existed; and yet, its "diplomatic security"
contracts since mid-2004, with the State Department alone, total more than $750
million. Today, Blackwater has become nothing short of the Bush administration's
well-paid Praetorian Guard. It protects the U.S. ambassador and other senior
officials in Iraq as well as visiting congressional delegations; it trains Afghan
security forces and was deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, setting
up a "command and control" center just miles from the Iranian border. The company
was also hired to protect FEMA operations and facilities in New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina, where it raked in $240,000 a day from the American taxpayer,
billing $950 a day
per Blackwater contractor.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the company has invested its lucrative government pay-outs
in building an impressive private army. At present, it has forces deployed
in nine countries and boasts a database of 21,000 additional troops at the ready,
a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gun-ships, and the world's
largest private military facility – a 7,000 acre compound near the Great Dismal
Swamp of North Carolina. It recently opened a new facility in Illinois ("Blackwater
North") and is fighting local opposition
to a third planned domestic facility near San Diego ("Blackwater West") by the
Mexican border. It is also manufacturing an armored vehicle (nicknamed the "Grizzly")
and surveillance blimps.
The man behind this empire is Erik Prince, a secretive, conservative Christian,
ex-Navy SEAL multimillionaire who bankrolls the president and his allies with
major campaign contributions. Among Blackwater's senior executives are Cofer
Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA; Robert Richer, former deputy
director of operations at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon inspector
general; and an impressive array of other retired military and intelligence
officials. Company executives recently announced the creation of a new
private intelligence company, Total Intelligence, to be headed by Black
For years, Blackwater's operations have been shrouded in secrecy. Emboldened
by the culture of impunity enjoyed by the private sector in the Bush administration's
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater's founder has talked of creating a
"contractor brigade" to support U.S. military operations and fancies his forces
the "FedEx" of the "national security apparatus."
As the country debates an Iraq withdrawal, Congress owes it to the public to
take down the curtain of secrecy surrounding these shadow forces that undergird
the U.S. public deployment in Iraq. The president likes to say that defunding
the war would undercut the troops. Here's the truth of the matter: Continued
funding of the Iraq war ensures tremendous profits for politically-connected
war contractors. If Congress is serious about ending the occupation, it needs
to rein in the unaccountable companies that make it possible and only stand
to profit from its escalation.
Jeremy Scahill is the author
of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater:
The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently
a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.
Copyright 2007 Jeremy Scahill