Two weeks after three US contractors were kidnapped by Shiite militia in a suburb of Baghdad, the US and Iraqi governments have provided only a trickle of information about their activities in Iraq or the identity of their employer. In the mainstream and defense press, the story has focused on the kidnappers, their ties to Iran, and the possible impact the incident could have on the US-Iraqi fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The three kidnapped contractors were “military trainers” working for General Dynamics, the nation’s fifth-largest defense contractor. They were most likely grabbed by the “League of the Righteous” (Asaib Ahl al-Haq), one of three powerful Shiite militias that maintain close ties to Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iran link is apparently so strong that Secretary of State John Kerry raised it with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In late January, Kerry took time out from the World Economic Forum in Davos to ask Zarif for help with the case and on “getting the right kind of outcome” for the United States. Meanwhile, opponents of the recent nuclear deal with Iran are using the kidnapping to attack Kerry and the Obama administration’s policies toward that country. (On Thursday, US officials told Reuters that “criminal, not political motives likely were behind the kidnapping” and said they had no evidence of direct Iranian government involvement.)
But, as is usual when it comes to the murky world of contracting, there’s far more to the tale. The incident underscores the deadly nature of the private security business and the growing importance of defense contractors in the Obama administration’s military operations abroad. And the story of one of the companies involved, Sallyport Global, illustrates how war and profit have mixed since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Whatever the circumstances, the Baghdad kidnapping underscores an important truth about the vast expansion of military contracting in war zones over the past 15 years: It’s an extremely dangerous occupation.
According to the latest statistics compiled by the Department of Labor, 3,712 people working for US and foreign companies under contract to the Pentagon and other US agencies were killed between September 1, 2001, and December 31, 2015. Not all were American; the numbers include citizens from many countries who were caught up in the war as contractors for US and foreign companies working for the US government.