Privatizing the Iraqi occupation

Relying on private contractors to supply U.S. troops in the field is a risky proposition.

The use of private contractors in war zones is hardly a new phenomenon. Military analysts and Pentagon planners have long promoted contracting as a cost-saving tool. Security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq depend so heavily on contractors that private security firms represent the second largest source of forces in Iraq, behind only the United States. Contractors are now among the most common targets of attacks, and the Iraqi public faces too much of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

It might no longer be possible for the United States to wage war or rebuild nations without private corporations at its side, but that should not stop the Bush administration and the Pentagon from rethinking their troubling dependence on private contractors.

To be sure, many aspects of reconstructing Iraq can only be done by private contractors. But security concerns, such as guarding U.S. military installations or guiding supply convoys through an often treacherous Iraqi countryside, are another matter. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld contends that doling out these kinds of responsibilities to the private sector allows U.S. troops to concentrate their efforts on rooting out insurgents and Saddam Hussein holdovers. That might be true, but when the Pentagon chose to fight this war with a fraction of the troops it needed, it created its own dependence on private contractors.

The downside to private security contractors is now apparent. Critics have noted that relying on private contractors to supply U.S. troops in the field is a risky proposition. Some contractors drawn to Iraq by lucrative six-figure salaries change their minds once the dangers become a reality. Last summer the army’s top logistics officer complained that skittish contractors were forcing some units to go without hot food, fresh showers or plumbing for months at a time. Others have pointed out that with the Iraqi legal system still in tatters and the U.S. occupation authority largely out of reach, ordinary Iraqis have no legal recourse if private contractors cause injury or damage property.

No matter how fiscally wise privatizing war might be there are some things best left to a professional military. Depending on private contractors, because the United States skimped on troop levels, is no way to fight a war and no way to build a nation.