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Pull the Plug on the Mercenary War | The Nation

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Pull the Plug on the Mercenary War

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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

About the Author

Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling Blackwater...

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Renditions, an underground prison and a new CIA base are elements of an intensifying US war, according to a Nation investigation in Mogadishu.

The Democratic leadership in Congress is once again gearing up for a great sell-out 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 anti-war 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 de-fund it, and ensures that tens of thousands of US 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 troops."

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 US 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 US 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 US 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 G.I. Joes, working for Blackwater and other major US 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 that?"

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 forty 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 admitted that he has, at times, been guarded in Iraq not by the US 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 back-door near doubling of US 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 US 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 as Order 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--sixty-four 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 safety.

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, US contractors in Iraq had their own motto: "What happens here today, stays here today."

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