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Matters of trust

Why not Pakistan?

Private military contractors constitute an essential element of conflict-resolution and counter-insurgency – wherever the US and NATO war-machine is involved

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times Jan 29, 2010

The December 30, 2009 attack on the CIA’s Forward Operating Base in Chapman killed seven Central Intelligence Agency officers, including two CIA contractors from the firm formerly known as Blackwater. While the attack was the worst since 1983, the gory incident also lifted the lid off the extensive nexus between America’s mighty and notorious CIA, and private security and military contractors.

It also flew in the face of the contradictions and clarifications that the American Department of Defence and the State Department keep issuing on the subject. The presence of two contractors on the sensitive base, reported widely in the US press within days of the incident, also underscored the deep involvement of private security contractors even with CIA’s extremely sensitive and secret missions.

Early in December, Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince admitted that the CIA had asked his company Blackwater Worldwide to kill Dr AQ Khan but authorities in Washington “chose not to pull the trigger”. According to the New York Times , Prince also admitted to participating in some of the CIA’s most sensitive operations, including raids on suspected militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now known as Xe Services, “Blackwater’s role in both wars changed sharply when its guards began providing security for CIA operatives in the field”.

Raids on suspected insurgents in Iraq, known as ‘snatch and grab’ operations, began happening almost nightly during the worst years of the war between 2004 and 2006. The paper quoted several former Blackwater guards as saying operations to capture and kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan became so routine that Blackwater personnel sometimes became partners in the missions rather than simply providing the security for the CIA officers.

The Washington Post ’s sources reported that actions taken by the agency’s personnel “went beyond the protective role specified in a classified Blackwater contract with the CIA” and included active participation in raids overseen by the CIA or special forces personnel.

Back in 2005, during a visit to Kabul, I had bumped into a young Afghan acquaintance. He told me he was part of a special Afghan-American force that is “meant to fix the bad guys – bullying, arresting or eliminating non-conforming opposition activists.” This squad, as I reflected, resembled the ones that had been operating in Iraq along-with the CIA. Their involvement in interrogation or transportation of Iraqi prisoners of war and insurgents was no secret either.

That is why both the attack on the base in Khost and my own encounter with the Afghan man, or even the plethora of news emerging out of Iraq on Blackwater and DynCorp, leave little doubt about the extensive network of private security and defence consultants and contractors. It is an industry that has prospered at the cost of the miseries of the common man in Iraq, Afghanistan and now also in Pakistan.

Why private military contractors? Because the Pentagon requires contractors for essential functions ranging from supplying food and laundry services to guarding convoys and even military bases; functions that were once performed by military personnel but have been outsourced so the military can focus more on battle-related tasks.

Following is a list of several private contracting firms that are assisting the American Defence department in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and places such as Tajikistan, Doha, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait: Fluor Corp, Blackwater, DynCorp, ArmorGroup North America, Xe (Blackwater), KBR Inc., Wackenhunt Services, NCL Holdings, Watan Risk (Afghan security and trucking firm handling the security of US/NATO cargo), CH2M Hill and Taos Industries (a subsidiary of Agility Defense & Government Services).

While private contractors have eased the burden off the US military’s finances and personnel, they have also kicked off controversies ranging from financial fraud to human rights abuses to abuses of authority under CIA cover. The ever-increasing reliance on private contractors has also prompted a shift in the defence industry, sending more money to logistics and construction companies that can perform everything from basic functions to project engineering.

Pentagon out-sourcing in fact has created an industry that nurtures a “legitimate business interest” in conflict. It thrives off combat and counter-insurgency. A recent contract worth up to US$15 billion, for instance, went to two firms, DynCorp International Inc. and Fluor Corp., to build and support US military bases throughout Afghanistan. A lot of allegations of graft and misappropriation accompany these business ventures.

On December 17, for instance, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked a panel of witnesses from the State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defence Department, about who was responsible for putting out this money (for Pentagon contracts); the assembled group of witnesses could not give her a total. “Pentagon auditors had examined US$5.9 billion worth of contracts and found about US$950 million in questioned and unsupported costs,” she said. “Because auditors have only looked at a fraction of contracts, the real amount of waste is likely to be much higher.”

Significant funding has gone to the Pentagon’s Commanders Emergency Response Programme (US$1.3 billion this year), logistics (US$1.8 billion), USAID projects (more than US$2 billion), equipment for Afghan security forces (US$1 billion), the State Department’s anti-drug and rule-of-law programs (US$900 million) and the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction projects (more than US$1 billion).

A substantial chunk of these allocations would go to the private contractors, currently numbered at close to 104,000 in Afghanistan. By August this year the figure could shoot up to 160,000 once the additional 30,000 troops take positions in Afghanistan, a ratio of 1.6 contractors to a soldier on ground, a sharp increase over previous years. The Congressional Research Service recently said the United States has spent nearly US$230 billion on the war in Afghanistan. That amount will jump to US$300 billion once Congress has approved a military spending bill for fiscal year 2010.

In Iraq, as of June 30, 2009, 119,706 military contractors were busy minting money off the Pentagon but with the draw-down in Iraq, many contractors headed towards Afghanistan to reap the dividends of the conflict there, with the additional 30,000 US and another 10,000 from other NATO partners serving as mouth-watering prospects for the contracting industry.

In essence, private military contractors constitute an essential element of conflict-resolution and counter-insurgency – wherever the US and NATO war-machine is involved. Massive financial benefits accrue to the private companies listed above because they not only back the military with food, fuel, armament supplies but also carry out dirty jobs for them (abductions, interrogations, illegal confinement, assassinations, private jails for terror suspects or opposition leaders), things the American constitution wouldn’t allow its soldiers to do.

Based on what these private mercenaries are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for the American military establishment, one can safely presume that they are also present in Pakistan in big numbers. It is these numbers that have alarmed the security establishment and also resulted in the visa row between the two countries; the US is still holding back about US$1.9 billion it owes the Pakistan Army for military services. US ambassador Anne Patterson has gone public, expressing her displeasure over 135 visa application rejections and the new visa procedures, topped by compulsory ISI clearance.

If these private contractors acted as booty-hunters, and colluded in illegal detentions, indulged with drug lords and protected friendly criminals in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, why should we expect otherwise in Pakistan? What we now need is to carry out an extremely careful scrutiny of the US nationals headed to Pakistan. Pakistan needs development strategists, security experts and helpful hands for its counter-insurgency efforts, and certainly not mercenaries waging wars inside Pakistan to promote their own business interests.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk