PMC employees roaming around Iraq today must contend with kidnappings, hijackings, and the kind of ambush that eventually claimed the life of Wolf Weiss. When driving their vehicles, as convoy escorts or to protect individuals, they are subject to sniper fire, to remotely detonated improvised explosive devices, and to suicide bombers. Their lives are full of stress, danger, and suspicion of, and from, the locals.
Because these contractors are civilians, they are not guaranteed protection by Coalition military forces. Virtually all of the contractors are armed: When they are fired upon, or even when they merely think they will be fired upon, they can fire back. There are no records to indicate how many Iraqis have been killed or wounded by contractors, and very few contractors are held responsible for whatever death or injury they may cause. In Iraq, for example, U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003–2004, extended immunity to all private contractors for their activities against Iraqis. Order 17, which remains in force, specifically excludes contractors “from Iraqi legal process with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a contract or any subcontract thereto.” In other words, when a contractor fires at a suspicious-looking oncoming Iraqi car, no one will hold him (the overwhelming majority of contractors are men) to account. Except, of course, the extended family of the dead or injured. If they retaliate, then the danger and destructiveness of the entire situation escalates, as it in fact has over the past two years.
Public-sector military forces, by contrast, are subject to strict regulation. Before members of the U.S. military go to the Middle East, they are trained in the folkways of a culture and religion that would otherwise be completely alien to them. America’s contractors are not regulated. And it is anybody’s guess whether they are acculturating to their environment, or whether they even care to be, other than to keep themselves alive. Although some companies truly see themselves as representing the national interest, not all do, and certainly not those that are non-American subcontractors to American (or British) firms.
Questions of behavior come into play as Iraq sinks into civil war — at least if civil war is defined as the operation of militias on both sides. Thousands of Iraqis are dying, and their families are hungering for revenge. In this environment, the actions of contractors, subject to no accountability other than company regulations (which matter only if they work for a responsible company), may undermine U.S. prospects of achieving any degree of success in Iraq.
The situation in Afghanistan may not be much better. Mr. Pelton asserts, on the basis of his visits to the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, that private contractors are carrying out quasi-military missions in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. He further claims that these missions are being conducted by companies and individuals under contract to agencies other than the Department of Defense precisely because of the “plausible deniability” factor. And he argues that the Afghans who work with these contractors are loyal only to the money they are paid and therefore always remain available to the highest bidder.
Contractors, notes Mr. Pelton, may not be as effective in realizing the military objectives of their employers. Many of the contractors involved in Afghanistan, for instance, are former Special Forces operatives. Some of them — though by no means all — exhibit the character traits that made Wolf Weiss a Rolling Stone star. Afghanistan’s topography and the sheer viciousness of its “bad guys” can make the situation in Iraq look tame. Yet only three years ago, Afghanistan appeared to be on the road to reconstruction. What has happened since that time? In no small measure, U.S. leaders shifted their focus to Iraq, leaving Afghanistan to NATO, the U.N., NGOs, and a small American force. And because that force was small, and stretched, contractors came to the fore, doing jobs U.S. troops couldn’t or wouldn’t do.