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October 19, 2021

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Use of mercenaries in Middle East was ineffective and un-American

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq offered a long list of painful lessons for the United States. One that the nation must reckon with was our privatization of warfare in those conflicts, which was detrimental in a number of ways.

The problems took on two forms — the use of mercenary forces, and a blank-check approach to hiring military contractors to support operations through non-combat roles.

Let’s take the non-combat contractors first.

A new study by Brown University’s Costs of War project and the Center for International Policy documented numerous cases of money being wasted, misused or misspent by contractors performing war-zone duties and involved in reconstruction. Think companies that set up military bases, handled food operations, ran fuel convoys and took care of other support needs that allowed trained military personnel to focus on combat and security missions.

When the use of these companies ballooned during the Bush/Cheney administration, they were touted as a cost-effective way to wage war. But the contracts for these companies soon became a firehose of cash with little oversight as to where it was going and how it was being spent. And as the authors of the new studies write, the contractors in many cases earned profits that were “the consequence of questionable or corrupt business practices that amount to waste, fraud, abuse, price-gouging or profiteering.”

In Afghanistan, for example, contractors allegedly paid protection money to the Taliban — directly benefiting the forces battling American troops. As secretary of state under Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton said this protection money was one of the Taliban’s main sources of revenue.

The authors say that kickbacks, bribes and other corruption that broke out in Afghanistan as billions of dollars flowed into the country through contractors was a key factor in the nation’s U.S.-backed government losing popular support.

The U.S. also relied partly on contractors to train and organize the Afghan military to fight in the absence of U.S. troops, which proved disastrous when those troops crumbled to the Taliban during its lightning-quick takeover of the country. To the contrary, military experts say that Afghan commando forces who had been trained by U.S. special ops units put up staunch resistance.

Then there was the problem of mercenaries, or private forces that engaged in actual combat operations.

The use of these mercenaries went against hundreds of years of U.S. military tradition, and it predictably led to abuses and corruption that ended up undermining the American operations and putting our troops at greater risk. A prime example came when four Blackwater contractors killed 17 unarmed civilians during 2007 in what became known as the Nisour Square massacre, which sparked anti-American sentiment worldwide and put American troops in jeopardy of reprisal attacks.

The reason for using these guns for hire was crass. Sending in mercenaries to die instead of U.S. troops insulated political leaders from political risk, and allowed them to cheaply fill holes in military capability without instituting a draft — which would have brought the nation’s military ambitions to a screeching halt — or spending tax dollars on the defense budget. It also gave leadership cover in situations when mercenaries brutalized civilians in a “security” environment, or performed operations that the military was barred by U.S. and international law from doing.

How much of a role did mercenaries and contracted employees play? The Department of Defense reported that in the fourth quarter of 2020, there were 27,388 private personnel working in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. At that time, there were fewer than 6,000 armed services personnel stationed in those countries.

Meanwhile, more mercenaries and military contractor employees died during the post-9/11 conflicts than U.S. troops — about 8,000 private personnel compared with about 7,000 service members.

It’s time for our nation to address this issue.

For one, the use of mercenaries must come to a full stop. Sending in guns for hire robs our nation of moral high ground and runs counter to our security. If our leaders want to go to war, they need to have the guts to order U.S. troops into action and show the responsibility to provide those troops with the resources they need to fight effectively.

Meanwhile, the study has prompted calls for a thorough review of privatized military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with an eye toward establishing better limitations on the roles companies play and to establish better oversight of them.

It’s a much-needed examination.

We can’t erase our defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we will lose on an even deeper level if we fail to study our mistakes and learn from them.

“If it were only the money, that would be outrageous enough,” William Hartung, the director of the arms and security program at the Center for International Policy, told the Associated Press. “But the fact it undermined the mission and put troops at risk is even more outrageous.”