The Big Questions About Iraq

August 26, 2008

DID THE SURGE WORK??

By PATRICK COCKBURN

http://counterpunch.com/patrick08262008.html

Will Iraq disintegrate if the United States withdraws its combat troops?

The US and Iraq are close to agreeing a security accord under which the US would pull its combat troops out of Iraqi cities, towns and villages on June 30, 2009 and out of Iraq by December 31, 2011. This will only happen if a joint Iraqi-American ministerial committee agrees that security in Iraq has improved to the point where the half million strong Iraqi security forces can take over. Other aspects of the draft agreement show that the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is increasingly confident of its own military and political strength. The accord now close to being agreed is very different from the one the US proposed as recently as March which would simply have continued the US occupation, much as it has been under the UN mandate which runs out at the end of the year. The main point about the agreement, if it is implemented as expected, is that the US will cease to be the predominant military power in Iraq from next summer for the first time since the US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Will Iraq be able to hold together as US troops depart? Continue reading

SEYMOUR HERSH INTERVIEW by Wajahat Ali

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Going 15 Rounds with Seymour Hersh

By WAJAHAT ALI

“I‘m having a horrible day,” grumbled Seymour Hersh, the 70 year-old Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, arguably the most revered of his time, and reporter for the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

Almost a week before, I called Seymour Hersh on a lark trying to score an interview regarding his New Yorker article “Shifting Targets: The Administration’s plan for Iran,” an explosive piece outlining the Bush Administration’s strategic and aggressive preparation for a potential attack on Iran. When Hersh writes, everyone reads, and the world pays attention.

Even The White House, through press secretary Dana Perino, was forced to respond to his article, publicly stating, “[The White House] is not going to comment on any possible scenario that an anonymous source continues to feed into Sy Hersh. We don’t discuss such things. We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran.”

During our first phone call, Hersh sounded hurried and rushed, a habitual trait I noticed, preparing for an international phone interview. “Listen, I got a call coming in from overseas, it’s gonna’ come in any moment. Just give me a call at the office,” he informed me.

I persisted, “How about next week? We can do the interview over the phone. I can call-“

“No, no. I’m traveling to the West Coast next week. I’m busy, but give me a call the week after, all right? Let’s do this later. Call my office. Ok?”

“Great,” I replied and hung up the phone, ecstatic after scoring potential interview time with the Pulitzer winning journalist.

Fast forward one week, I’m casually sitting behind my desk with my laptop in front of me, calling Hersh’s office number to leave a message on his machine reminding him of the interview upon his return from the publicity trip.

The phone rings. It rings again. Instead of a soothing, feminine, robotic automated voice message, a surly and flustered voice answers, “Hello?”

“Um, uh, hey, Seymour? This is Wajahat ­”

“Who?”

“Uh, Wajahat Ali? Anyway, I wasn’t expecting you. I called to leave a message on your voice mail, and you pick up. Great! How was your trip? I thought you’d be back next week ­”

“Ugh, it was terrible. A terrible trip. I’m having a horrible day. That trip was just ­ whowho are you, again? Why are you calling?” questioned an obviously irritated and surly Hersh.

“I’m calling to schedule an interview we talked about last week, remember?” I answered oblivious to his current temperament.

Little did I know this simple question would unleash the notoriously intense feistiness and doggedness of Hersh, a man whose words and attitude cut straight to the point, fast and furious, shooting off half a dozen questions in a row without pause. His aggressive style reminded me of an ethnic, immigrant uncle: blunt, honest, gruff, but oddly endearing.

“Why do you want an interview? Who are you again? Islamic ­ what? Islamic? Listen, you know I did Jazeera right? Al Jazeera? They’re Muslim (pauses). Oh, God. I mean, so, so what? What, you want an interview or something? Is that what you want? I – I usually do the pimping for my pieces for 2-3 days after they’re published, but once it’s done I move on. I move on, ya’ know? That was last week. This is this week. I got a lot of reporting to do (Sigh, sounds overwhelmed). I got a lot of reporting to do.”

I’ve been hit with a freight train, and I’m just trying re-attach my jaw let alone talk. My brain fires off an intelligent and lucid response, but before my lips can move, Hersh is on the loose again.

“What do you want from me? I mean, I really don’t like doing this. You know ­ these interviews. Once it’s done, I move on. I ­ I mean ­ you shoulda’ called last week. Why didn’t you call last week?” he asked.

Um, I actually did call last week, but you said call back in 2 weeks,” I answered calmly and logically.

“Oh,” replied Hersh, and for a second I sensed a silence, and thus an opportunity.

“Mr. Hersh, it won’t take long. I just wanted your thoughts on the recent ­”

“I hate it when people ask what I think. Who am I? I mean who cares what I think? Who cares about my thoughts? I just hate that. I hate answering that. I’m a reporter. I report the facts. I’m just a reporter. I’m just being up front with you.”

I am momentarily stunned. However, the ethnic, South Asian salesman in me comes alive and, like a snake charmer, I’m prepared to cajole, console, placate, and adulate in order to convince my reluctant client. But before I can utter a word, Hersh retaliates with a blow.

“Ok, a sample question. Suppose we did this interview, what would a sample question sound like? Hit me with a sample question. Go!” commanded Hersh.

The bell rings. The Heavyweight advances, and now you’re on your toes for Round 1.

ALI: (Slightly flustered and caught off guard) Ok, I have one. Here’s a sample. Recently at the Democratic debate, Senator Mike Gravel called out Hillary Clinton for voting on Senator Lieberman’s aggressive resolution against Iran that condemned Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. What I want to ask is, should we expect anything different from the Democrats if they are elected in regards to U.S. foreign policy, specifically in regards to Iraq? Iran?

HERSH: I have no idea. I would certainly hope so. How would I possible know? I don’t see them doing anything different with Iraq, despite concede it. Just concede it ­ I don’t know what else they can do that is different. And who says they’re going to win? I don’t see that they are going to win. I’m not sure they are, and I don’t know why people think that. They haven’t done anything different. They haven’t brought anything new to the table that hasn’t already been said by the Republicans. They just talk the talk. They talk the talk. If I knew this ­ I mean, who would win (the presidential race), I’d be at the race track everyday. Not reporting. You just don’t know. No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I’m just a guy who writes ­ who writes stories about the war. When people ask me about politics it drives me crazy! I’m not a fan of politics. I don’t like discussing politics. You can’t make me something I’m not.

ALI: I understand. Trust me, trust me, I’m not trying to. But, there you go, that would be an example of a sample question if we did an interview ­

HERSH: What!? We are doing an interview! What the fuck were you doing?! This is the interview! Get out your recorder, let’s go. Let’s go.”

ALI: Ok, great, let’s do it. Private contractors in Iraq, specifically Blackwater, have been on the news nonstop for the past few months regarding numerous allegations of reckless shooting and violence. What’s your take on this?

HERSH: Oh, there’s been a lot of wrongdoing by them. A lot of arrogance. [Blackwater] drive around like they own the world over there. They increase a lot of resentment amongst the Iraqi civilian population against us [The U.S.] by behaving like this. Listen, if you’re an occupier then you act like an occupier. Occupiers act like occupiers. There is no way that Iraqi people will ever respond in any positive way to what Blackwater does.

ALI: How will the Iraqis respond to this? You highlighted the Abu Ghraib scandal in your book, Chain of Command. You know private contractors CACI and Titan were responsible for much of those abusive interrogations and you described the blowback resulting from [Abu Ghraib]. What’s the blowback on this one?

HERSH: There is no way Iraqi people will respond to will ­ they have never responded to will. It’s exactly the same problem we encountered in Afghanistan. I mean, a lot of people who normally would have been or should have been supportive of us, I mean, they should have supported us initially, those people have come to realize they don’t like us since we became an “occupier.”

You know being an “occupier” is risky business. It is really hard to be “occupier.” Occupiers never win. They never have. They’ve always ended up getting squeezed out. Anyone, I mean anyone, who has been following this war closely knows Blackwater is doing just what they’ve been doing all along. They only reason it’s in the news is because of the absolutely egregious way they behaved, and the fact Iraq decided to go public against them. Listen, Blackwater is operating they way they’ve always operated. They only take care of their clients and their client’s needs. That’s what matters. Anyone else who isn’t the client doesn’t matter.

ALI: Recently, a maelstrom has been raised over the new Mearsheimer/Walt book “The Israel Lobby” describing the influence of ­

HERSH: I don’t know ­ Israeli Lobby? I don’t know if I’d call them an Israeli Lobby.

ALI: Well, do you buy it? The influence and pressure of certain pro ­Israeli lobbies on the U.S. government? What’s the level of influence, if any, or is it overblown?

HERSH: There’s AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee). You have AIPAC. It is a powerful lobby, you know, it’s an interest group. But Israel – Israel doesn’t need a lobby. It has direct connections right here, right here in town (Washington D.C.). I mean, of course, it’s a monumental force. But that’s the reality. It’s been a reality forever – in my life at least. Money talks is the old cliché, and B.S. walks. But you know, it’s just interest groups. That’s the way they are, and everyone does it. Everyone. ­

ALI: Right. ­

HERSH: For example, the Muslims ­ that’s a good example. They solidly voted for Bush (2000 election).

ALI: The Muslims came out en masse and voted for him. ­

HERSH: Right, I mean the Muslims, the interest group, it’s not nearly as organized, or powerful or well funded as others, but you know, there was enough money and enough percentage of votes that made a real effort in the Muslim community. [The Muslims] are conservative. Conservative in how they follow their religion, you know, very conservative. They (Muslim Americans) keep their heads down, out of trouble, just keep your head down they believe, and they say, “just mind your own business.” And the Muslims are successful in business; they have a high degree of talent in making money in areas of big business. In the business world ­ for example in Lebanon ­ you can see it with the Shia there. So, it is inevitable. Anyway, that’s how interests group work, always. But, I can’t calibrate the numbers for you to determine their influence.

ALI: Over the past couple of years, it’s become fashionable and clichéd amongst certain circles to compare our involvement in Iraq to the Vietnam War. Now, you’ve been there, you were there reporting on Vietnam, breaking the My Lai massacre story back then. And here you are now with Iraq. As a person who has actually lived through it and reported on both, are there any similarities, or is it premature to compare?

HERSH: One thing is similar. We are out there fighting in a country with uneducated, 18 year old boys with weapons. They’re frightened – frightened. They’re frightened because they don’t know the country, they don’t know the culture. They’re not even interested in knowing about the culture. Fear is there. [The U.S. soldiers] never see an enemy sometimes, and weeks go by. And they continue to lose fellow soldiers, they lose them to snipers, they lose them to mines, and eventually and inevitably, they take the war to the people they can see. And in Iraq, that’s the local population. Happens in all wars. All of ’em. Civilians are the ones treated differently.

Vietnam was always a tactical mistake. We lose the war, we are driven off in ’75, and in four to five years we are back in that country playing Monopoly with Vietnam’s economy. You know, making investments, several investments in that country. That is not ‘gonna happen here. We are in a strategic debate with about 1.3, what, 1.5 billion Muslims –

ALI: Around 1.5 –

HERSH: Yeah, so 1.5 billion Muslims. We are in a real strategic war here, and we really misplayed it. We did more for Osama than he could do for himself. We played a part in recruiting for him. This is a part of the world where America is not going to be wanted. Same thing in Afghanistan, especially in the Southern part of Afghanistan.

ALI: You make a good point. You know I’m Pakistani-American, son of Pakistani immigrants, but I have family there still. And we talk to them often and I used to visit all the time, but the level of Anti-Americanism in that country is amazing, which it didn’t have 10 years ago, but now, it’s just overwhelming.

HERSH: Well, I specifically was discussing the southern region of Afghanistan.

ALI: But the border between the two ­

HERSH: Yes, right, you’re right. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan is the same issue, the exact same issue as with Afghanistan in terms of a tremendous lack of popularity for our government amongst the people there. This will increase particularly as we pit Sunni against Shia.

ALI: So there’s this rise of Anti-Americanism unfortunately around that region. In your research, have you found the main cause of hatred against America?

HERSH: American violence. It’s the violence. Do we know ­ I mean, how many bombs are dropped? How many shells are fired? Who knows what the accurate number is? I know I don’t. There was, last year I think, I believe there was a number reported in the “The Lancet” that said the Iraqi causalities numbered in 600,000 killed [The Lancet medical journal reporting published in October ’06 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population]. That number is breathtakingit’s breathtaking. I believe, however, the numbers and causalities are actually much greater than have been reported.

Every family in Iraq knows someone who has been killed. Americans are invariably blamed. We are going to have serious situations resulting from that. This is a society [Iraq] that does deal with revenge. We probably created a lot of new jihadists and martyrs and anger, anger with how we behaved and the resulting casualties that are innocent Iraqis.

ALI: On the ground in Iraq, what specifically causes the blowback against our troops, what causes the violence?

HERSH: Americans are frightened. They are frightened in Iraq. Not frightened in, you know, a cowardly way. But frightened like anyone ­ I mean, it’s natural to be like that, anyone would. You’re a solider in Iraq, you’re now manning a checkpoint there. You don’t know the language, you don’t know Arabic. You don’t know their culture. Now, [the Iraqis] arrive at the checkpoints. They miss the checkpoints. You yell at them to stop, but they don’t understand you, they don’t speak the language, so they keep driving. They don’t stop. You open fire. And now you’ve made enemies. We are occupiers right now.

ALI: I want to get back to the Sunni-Shia comment you made. As you know, America has history in that region, specifically the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. We know that the U.S., through then Vice President Bush, was heavily involved, trying to bleed both sides against the middle, weakening the Shia theocracy of Iran and hedging bets for the Sunni regime of Saddam. So, now, is it going to be good ‘ol “divide and conquer” with the sectarian situation? How will U.S. forces and policy play with the Sunni-Shia dynamic in the Muslim world?

HERSH: Brother versus brother. It’s going to be brother versus brother. Sunni versus Shia. There’s an incredible sectarian war happening right now in Iraq. Things are always tense between both groups there. We know Saddam mistreated the Shia when he was in power. But, it was nothing then like it is now. The killing now is unbelievable.

The new policy of America is that we are going to work with Israelis and moderate Sunnis, those include Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. We’re going to join forces with Western forces in Europe. Then, America and Israel are going to go after people we don’t like. People like Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah. There is a coalition forming, a coalition that forms and pits brother against brother, a fitnah. You know that’s not an exact meaning of the word, it’s an Arabic word. But it’s fitnah [dissention, disunity]. And we have strange bedfellows working with us ­ Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – all are going to be used to put pressure on Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. It’s a unique notion. It’s “the Re-direction” ­ you are seeing it right now. I wrote about in the New Yorker. It’s called “the Re-direction.”

[“The Re-direction,” according to Hersh in his March piece, is the Bush Administration’s new policy towards the Middle East. In order to undermine Iran, which is Shiite, the administration has decided to cooperate with Saudi’s Sunni government in Lebanon to engage in “clandestine operations that intend to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria.”]

You are seeing tremendous pressure now. For example, now, right now in Lebanon, America’s position, the Bush Administration’s position is to support the Siniora government as an example of their belief in democracy. We are not interested in hearing the complaints of the Shias [Hezbollah] and other groups.

[Hersh elaborates on this point in the same article, where he quotes an official who states, “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we canIn this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequencesIt’s a very high-risk venture.”]

ALI: Let’s talk of Iran. Based on what you’ve said and written, and what we’ve heard countless times by the Administration regarding Iran’s potential nuclear capability, their hostility towards America, and so forth, is there real, credible evidence to suggest that, indeed, Iran poses a threat?

HERSH: Oh, the White House believes it. They believe that, no question. They believe Iran’s Revolutionary guard, the Government, it’s all part of one unified group that is dedicated to help kill Americans. [The White House] describes the Revolutionary Guard as an active, radical commando unit. Of course our intelligence community is bitterly, bitterly divided over this. And the Administration has not even come close to making its case on this. We have to remember, when it was 1992, Saddam fell after the war, and for a brief time, you know, for a brief time there was a rebellion against Saddam’s regime by the Shia. We did nothing. We knew about it, and we did not nothing. We let Saddam fly helicopters to kill these Shias. Since then there has been a lot of bitterness against America. So, there is always two sides, right? Two sides to a story? Well, this has six, seven sides.

ALI: But what does the White House say, or believe, that Iran concretely does to help the insurgency in Iraq?

HERSH: America says that Iran supplies arms. They supply arms, weapons, I.E.D’s ­ which – do you know about them? They are these improvised explosive devices, these explosive devises that are incredibly effective. They think Iran is supplying intelligence on several issues, and they see Iran as being directly responsible for what’s happening in Iraq.

Ok, one more. That should be enough right? You should have enough for a piece, right?

ALI: Should be enough, yeah. So, according to your sources and research, in your opinion, has Iran actually done anything to warrant this belief that it is a legitimate threat to America?

HERSH: Well, Some believe, like I do, some people believe that Iran is doing nothing different than what it has done for the past two to three decades in supporting the Shia. I mean, that’s what they are in interested in ­ to support the Shia. But there is no notion that this government, our government has proven its case yet. They U.S. may do what they want to do against Iran. I mean, who is going to stop this president? Who is going to stop him? I don’t know. (Pause) Ok, so are we good?

ALI: We are good.

HERSH: Ok, no more right? Promise no more phone calls?

ALI: Promise no more phone calls.

HERSH: Great. Thanks. Bye

Ding. Ding. Ding. End of Round 15. And with that, Hersh hangs up the phone off and returns to do what he does best ­ reporting. He doesn’t believe that people care about his opinions or his thoughts. I mean, he’s not a politician, so why should they, right? He’s just a reporter. That’s all. So, please folks, let’s not go and try to make him something he’s not.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at https://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com

Blackwater and Private Military Firms in Iraq

The Good, the Bad and the Iraqi

By WAJAHAT ALI

“Privatize first, ask questions later.”

William D Hartung

“I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world”

Gary Jackson, President of Blackwater, hired to protect Lt. Gen Paul Bremer, head of the CPA.

“For most of the world’s governments, though, there are simply no applicable laws that regulate and define the jurisdictions under which PMF’s (Private Military Firms) operate.”

P.W. Singer

“It’s more cost effective to outsource some of those activities, those functions, outside of the military. I didn’t do the numbers, but I’m telling you, it’s cheaper.” Paul Cerjan, VP of Worldwide military affairs, Halliburton/KBR

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

The black heart of outsourcing core, military functions to Private Military Firms (PMF’s) revealed itself yet again this week with the most recent (of many) Blackwater scandals. Blackwater, the North Carolina based private security firm with 1,000 employees currently deployed in Iraq, first came to prominence as the contracted, personal bodyguards of former Coalition Provisional Authority head Lt. General Paul Bremer. Unfortunately, Blackwater’s international reputation has blossomed due to its notoriety warranted by irresponsible and violent acts in Iraq. These incidents, which seem like a recurring, annual trend, emphasize the crucial, prescient need to closely examine PMF’s roles, responsibilities, and most importantly–legal accountability–in the “War on Terror.”

Recently, Iraqi investigations revealed Blackwater employees were responsible for nearly 6 violent episodes this year resulting in 10 deaths and countless wounded civilians. However, on September 27, The State Department, for the first time, publicly stated Blackwater’s security personnel has actually been involved in 56 shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq so far this year alone.

Furthermore, federal prosecutors are currently investigating Blackwater employees for illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq and selling them on the black market, which have, ironically, ended up in the hands of organizations that the United States government has officially deemed as “terrorist.” Surely, the U.S. government has reprimanded this organization, cancelled their contracts, and held them accountable for such illegal and negligent acts. Right? Wrong. Reaffirming their undying loyalty to private military firms, The White House, through its cabinet member of choice Condoleezza Rice, said they have, yet again, ordered a review of the government’s handling of private contractors in Iraq, but added “We (the government) havereceived the protection of Blackwater for number of years now, and they have lost their own people in protecting our own people (high ranking U.S. diplomats and ambassadors) – and that needs to be said.” What also should be said is that Blackwater is just one of many private military firms whose illegal conduct has gone largely unnoticed and unpunished under either U.S. or international law.

We must recall The Abu Ghraib Torture Scandal that rocked the headlines in the summer of 2004. Aside from permanently disgracing the United States military reputation in the Middle East, this harrowing episode introduced the world to the catastrophic consequences and weaknesses of privatizing certain military functions to private contractors. The Taguba Report, prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba to investigate the scandal, highlighted private military firms CACI and Titan as being “directly or indirectly responsible” for the abuses, since they employed 30 or so interrogators who made up more than half of the Abu Ghraib interrogation team. Torrin Nelson, former employee of CACI working as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, illustrated a grave problem with outsourcing core military functions to the private market when he said, “The problem with outsourcing intelligence work is the limit of oversight and control by the military administrators over the independent contractors.” Other egregious examples include the complete exoneration of private military firm DynCorp (hired as Bosnia’s police force), whose employees were involved in a Bosnian rape and child prostitution scandal. None of the men, including DynCorp’s site supervisor who videotaped himself raping two young women, were ever legally prosecuted, instead they were “sprinting out of the country, away from local authorities.” How convenient.

The lack of responsibility and accountability for private military actors are major areas of concern, since PMF’s are generally subject only to the laws of the market. Specifically, a public military actor, such as an Army Marine, would be court marshaled, dishonorably discharged, or arrested for partaking in illegal activities contrary to domestic and international law. Certain manners of control and regulation would ensure this type of swift punishment and accountability, such as internal checks and balances, domestic laws regulating military force, public opinion, parliamentary scrutiny, and numerous international laws. However, no agency, legislative oversight, or legal recourse truly affects the PMF’s, such as Blackwater, aside from the checks and balances of it shareholders, whose decision to punish or appraise depends primarily on profit incentives. In fact, the army concluded in 2002 that it lacked a “specific identified force structure” and “detailed policy on how to establish contractor management oversight within an area of responsibility.”

Furthermore, there exists a lack of proper monitoring of PMF contracts and employment activities, such as those witnessed at Abu Ghraib. Specifically, both private and public sectors agree on proper monitoring by public authorities, but that would raise contract costs, blur the chain of command, and diffuse responsibility. Most PMF contracts, such as those in Iraq, take place in the “fog of war”–a highly complex and uncertain war time environment, making routine monitoring extremely difficult For example, in the detention facility at Abu Ghraib, the civilian contractors “wandered about with too much unsupervised free access in the detainee area” according to the Taguba Report, which also remarked they (the civilian contractors) “do not appear to be properly supervised.” Also, PMF contract terms are often unspecific, because they lack outside standards of achievement and established measures of effectiveness. The result? The principal defers to the client for progress reports, instead of obtaining up to minute, accurate unbiased evaluations from neutral, professional, public monitoring groups.

The lack of accurate monitoring and oversight has also led to scandals of PMF’s overcharging for un-provided services, thereby undermining one of the main motives for privatization: cost savings. Particularly, P.W. Singer urges clients, such as the United States government, to notice that a firm’s primary aim, that of profit maximization, cannot always perfectly align itself perfectly with their client’s interests. The phenomenon is known as “improper contracting”, illustrated by Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, which operates over 60 sites in Iraq as the military’s main supplier due to $12 billion worth of service contracts. To be fair, any industry contains actors willing to engage in unscrupulous practices, such as overcharging, hiding failures, not performing to peak capacity, and skirting corners to maximize profit and minimize costs. Improper contracting concerns have plagued two companies in particular; Halliburton and the provider firm Custer Battles, who, according to experts, operate “with poor oversight.”

The recent debacle by Blackwater contractors and Halliburton truckers elucidates concern involving the relationship between civilian contractors and military actors, and whether this relationship truly fosters efficient end results. This interdependence of civilian and military actors might result in a lopsided over-dependence. Specifically, if the government places core functions and strategic plans in the hands of a private firm, then the government succumbs to the economic term “ex-post holdup” meaning it becomes “too dependent” and “at the mercy” of the private agent. An analogy could be drawn between the sadist who hovers the carrot on the stick in front of the starving prisoner, knowing full well the prisoner will oblige any indulgence to obtain the precious resource. In Iraq, after a 19-truck Haliburton KBR convoy was ambushed, with six drivers killed, several KBR truckers absolutely refused to drive until assured of improved security. In fact, hundreds of drivers left their jobs and the country. As a result, the United States military, dependent on Halliburton trucks and truckers for supplies, was left with “dwindling stores of ammunition, fuel, and water.” Unlike public military actors, private actors, such as the Halliburton truckers, can break their contracts and leave without fear of court martial or prosecution.

This “abandonment with immunity” not only threatens reliability and confidence in private actors, but also undermines the safety of American soldiers and the integrity of military operations. Barry Yeoman articulates the problem clearly when he states:

Think about it: a private military firm might decide to pack its own bags for any number of reasons, leaving American soldiers and equipment vulnerable to enemy attack. If the military really can’t fight wars without contractors, it must at least come up with ironclad policies on what do if the private soldiers leave American forces in the lurch.”

The competing interests and functions of civilian contractors and military personnel lead to deteriorating communication and harmony between the two sectors. Open streams of communication can help efficiency by allowing private and public sector actors to know of each other’s functional capabilities, resource strength, and locations, especially in hot zones According to Steven Schooner, an expert in government contracting, since the contractors are outside the military command structure there is a lack of coordination on the battlefield, and furthermore “contractors and the military don’t communicate in the same networks. They don’t get the same intelligence information.” Col. Jill Morgenthaler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military command headquarters in Baghdad, agreed, “There is no formal arrangement for intelligence sharing” however “ad hoc relationships are in place”

Unfortunately, the tragic results of inefficient communication between private and public actors are exemplified by the killings of 4 Blackwater personnel two years ago. These private contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah while escorting three empty trucks on their way to pick up kitchen equipment. The State Department’s report states, “Blackwater took on the Fallujah mission before its contract officially began, and after being warned by its predecessor that it was too dangerous. It sent its team on the mission without properly armored vehicles and machine guns. And it cut the standard mission team by two members, thus depriving them of rear gunners.” This tragic incident catalyzed a U.S. military assault on Fallujah leaving 36 U.S. soldiers, 200 Sunni insurgents and 600 Iraqi civilians dead. The United States Oversight Committee on Oversight and Government Reform officially stated that Blackwater “delayed and impeded” a congressional probe of this tragic and unnecessary debacle .

The images of the Iraqi mob burning the Blackwater car and hanging their bodies from the bridge gave civilian contractors chills, specifically the family members of the slain men who filed wrongful death suits against Blackwater for failing to supply adequate guards as promised in the contract. Surprisingly, Marine Col. John Toolan was in command of the region during the tragic episode and had no knowledge of the contractors’ presence in the area due to lack of communication and information sharing. Furthermore, their deaths compelled him to set aside a core military strategy, quelling the insurgency, because he was forced to invade Fallujah and find the murderers. In hindsight, one can only assume an alternative result if there was a formal, consistent stream of communication between civilian contractors, such as Blackwater, and military personnel, such as Col John Toolan. Perhaps lives would have been saved and crucial military functions would have proceeded as planned. However, the lack of communication highlighted problems between the two sets of actors both supposedly working towards a unified goal, but harming their respective progress and interests instead.

So, here we are again in 2007 with another public, international PR crisis involving American PMF’s in Iraq threatening our already maligned reputation and endangering the sovereignty and efficiency of the United States military. History has taught us repeatedly that strict accountability, professional, independent monitoring systems of PMF’s, and swift, public legal recourse for unlawful conduct would not only curb future abuses, but also show the world the United States punishes those contractors who act recklessly and with impunity. History has also taught us that war is profitable and the clarity of accountability and legal ethics is generally always lost in this “fog of war.” And as of September 2007, Blackwater continues its convoy movements on the streets of Iraq. The black heart of American private military firms in Iraq has a strong, healthy pulse indeed.

Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwrite and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: wajahatmali@gmail.com

An Interview with P. W. Singer

Privatizing Terror, Outsourcing Diplomacy

By WAJAHAT ALI

The international outcry over the recent Blackwater shootings forced the world to closely examine and appreciate the complex reality of the United States government’s overdependence on private military contractors operating in Iraq. The foremost expert and most cited authority on the subject is Peter Warren Singer, a senior fellow at the prestigious Brookings Institute, co-founder of “The U.S. Policy towards the Islamic World” Program, and author of the seminal work on private military contractors, “Corporate Warriors.” This interview, his most recent, examines the most current repercussions caused by the Blackwater scandal and private military firms within an overall context of The Iraq War, U.S. Foreign policy in the Middle East, and America’s public relations with the Muslim world.

WAJAHAT ALI: Ok, the first question is an easy one. A fastball right down the middle regarding Blackwater (An American Private Military firm contracted by the U.S. government to provide security in Iraq). On September 16, Blackwater was involved in a catastrophic shooting incident in Iraq’s Nisoor Square leaving nearly 20 Iraqi civilians dead. Are you at all shocked or surprised by this revelation?

P.W. SINGER: No. Short answer, no. Long answer is that–look, I’ve been researching and writing on private military firms for over a decade now. My book, Corporate Warriors, dealt with this issue even before the Iraq War. Since the war started the outsourcing of military functions has been put on steroids not only in terms of the growth of it, but also in terms of the negative aspects coming out of that growth. The incident in question regarding Blackwater needs to be put in a proper context. It’s just one company out of 181 other private military companies operating in that space in Iraq. The incidents involving abuses of private military contractors go back to the starting of the war. This includes the incidents at Abu Ghraib (Torture Scandal) and the private contractor Aegis Trophy’s infamous video of 2005 (Aegis employees posted a video online showing them shooting at Iraqi civilians.) You also had the Triple Canopy shootings lawsuit in ’06. Blackwater is just one of the companies in the game.

Within Blackwater itself there have been multiple incidents well before this most recent one. An example is The Christmas Eve shooting where a Blackwater contractor allegedly got drunk, got into an argument inside the Green Zone with one of the Iraqi Vice President’s security guards, and then shot him and killed him. It’s been over 10 months since that happened. Weeks before the Nisoor Square September shooting, there were multiple incidents involving the Iraqi Interior Ministry. There was one such incident where an Interior Ministry employee was killed, one where there was an armed standoff between Blackwater contractors and the Iraqi police in which the U.S. military actually had to intervene. One of the U.S. government officials, embedded in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, described this as a “powder keg of anger.” That powder keg exploded several weeks later (The September Nisoor Square shooting in Iraq). To answer your question, no, I wasn’t surprised. Absolutely not.

The Iraqi government had some harsh words recently for Blackwater, publicly saying, “Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in the country.” Could this statement also describe the conduct of the U.S. forces and other American private firms operating in Iraq?

The Iraqi government understands that Blackwater is only one player within a much larger industry–the Iraqis understand that also. They (Blackwater) have become some sort of a symbol. If you ask most contractors, I am dubious that they would see themselves as “guests of the Iraqi government.” Most see themselves carrying out a contract, and the client in that contract is not the Iraqi government. It usually is the United States government or United States subcontractors. They view Iraqi governments with a great deal of suspicion. Remember, we are talking about an Iraqi Interior Ministry that just couple of weeks ago an investigation board found to be completely corrupt. The Ministry acted basically as a cover for a number of sectarian militias operating in Iraq, and the recommendation of the investigation board was that the best thing one can do for Iraq was to shut the Ministry down and start over again. So there are a lot of fingers that can be pointed in lot of directions.

At the end of the day, Iraq is starting to act like sovereign state. Sovereign states want to control the forces within their borders–that’s what makes them sovereign. That holds equally true for sectarian militia as it does for private military firms operating out there. They are outside the control of the government, or at least what should be the control of government. The point is if Iraq is to be a sovereign state, it needs to be resting control over this, and to be honest, this is how you get the U.S. out of there–you let Iraq have institutions that are able to carry out their jobs as a government.

Has the global microscope on the Blackwater scandal caused an overall strain between the Iraqi and US governments? If so, what are the repercussions in the “Muslim world” and also on the ground when dealing with the Iraqi insurgency?

The United States government aspect of it is – that the unfortunate truth is while contractors are carrying out a number of critical and important missions, the overall effect of their use has actually been undermining rather than assisting U.S. operations and goals. It extends all the way to tactical levels on the field to the grand strategic world.

To the question of the relationship between the Iraqi and U.S. government, it’s very interesting remember you need to put this into context. One week before the shootings in Nisoor square (September ’07), General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker (U.S. envoy to Iraq) testified to Congress about the “surge strategy.” Now, there was huge debate whether the military aspects of the surge strategy were being met or not. They really went back and forth on that. Now, one thing they did talk about was the 43 Iraqi citizens who were shot in Baghdad alone by private contractors that same week. When we talk about what President Bush refers to as a “Return to normalcy” in Iraq–this doesn’t feel all that normal, does it? There was no debate at all about the political aspects. Everyone (in Congress) on both sides of the aisle universally agreed that in the year ahead we would have to press the Iraqi government to finally take some action on the political benchmarks. The key to the “surge strategy” success was dependant on this.

Now, let’s move forward just one week–within the span of that 20 minute Blackwater gun fight (September ’07 Nisoor Square shooting) –that whole strategy falls by the wayside. A couple hours later, Secretary Condoleeza Rice calls up Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, which is extraordinary because she normally doesn’t call him. When she calls to speak with him personally, she doesn’t press him on the really important issues, such as, “We need you to pass the oil law,” or “We need you to deal with the amnesty issues”–both critical political benchmarks.

Instead, she calls to express her sympathies and to apologize for this Blackwater incident. Over the next week, she and Ambassador Crocker have to keep going back to the Iraqis, and they are almost actually begging them to let Blackwater get back into business (Resuming their routine operations in Iraq), because if Blackwater can’t operate, then the United States embassy is effectively shut down. This is the complete vulnerability that the United States has created for our operations there in Iraq by depending on private contractors.

One week later, Bush meets with Prime Minister Maliki face to face. They were already scheduled to have this meeting, but now the whole point of the meeting changes. Top of the agenda is no longer, “Prime Minister Maliki, we really need you to get serious about these sectarian killings, because if they don’t end, we don’t end this war, and I don’t get my troops home.” Instead, top of the agenda is Blackwater. So, basically this a manner in which private contractor action completely skews the relationship between two governments and undermines the overall strategy.

Now, the second question asks what does this do to the broader, as some people like to say “War of ideas,” or however you want to phrase it, regarding the broader Muslim world. And here, too, this is a complete hammer to our image; a hammer to our public diplomacy. Some U.S. military officers on the scene described this as “bad as Abu Ghraib.” I personally disagree with that, but it points to the level of negativity. While private contractors are seen as convenient, temporary manpower shift, it’s a way of dis-involving your public (American citizens), and it doesn’t play that way “outside” (Iraq). When incidents happen, the Iraqis don’t just focus on the private companies, instead they blame the U.S. government.

The Blackwater “Nisoor Square” shooting incident resonated negatively not only inside Iraq but throughout the Muslim world. A variety of major media out there in the Middle East like Al Jazeera reported on the Blackwater contractors as “an army that seeks fame, fortune and thrills away from all considerations and ethics of military honor. The employees are known for their roughness, they are known for shooting indiscriminately at vehicles or pedestrians.” Even the Daily Star, the regional English language newspaper which is probably one of the most moderate voices in the region, compared the uses of the company to the Mahdi army (Militant Shiite insurgency in Iraq) and put the Mahdi army in a positive light saying “at least they (The Mahdi army) can plausibly claim to be defending their community. No foreign mercenary can plead similar motivations. So, all of them should go.” These are all really major quotes, but the timing of it happens at the very same moment that Secretary Rice is in the region trying to save her historic legacy by jump starting the Arab-Israel peace process. Most people would agree the Arab-Israel situation is the real key in sucking the poison out of Muslim-U.S. relations. And instead of her efforts being positive for any kind of U.S. public diplomacy, every commentator (in Iraq) called the conference she was attending “The BlackWater- Black Heart Conference.” It is just a hammer blow to our public diplomacy.

The second thing which is fascinating to me is the reaction by Blackwater. While the Arab press is roiling, and it’s being covered in other parts of the Muslim world like Indonesia and Pakistan negatively, how did the company react?

That’s a great lead in to a question I have regarding Erick Prince, the chairman and owner of Blackwater, who recently testified on Capitol Hill and predictably defended his company’s actions.

I was there for all 5 hours of it.

Were you just steaming in the back, fuming the whole time?

Yes (Laughs). To be completely honest.

If you were on the panel, what questions would you have asked? Some key questions you thought were on point and went unasked by the panel?

Well the event played out two ways. One side was craven and the other side was clueless. One side kept going, “Mr. Prince tell us how great you are, tell us how wonderful you are, tell us how special you are.” The other side asked questions that were scatterbrained, all over the place, and didn’t deal with the issue at hand. So, I have here a couple of questions that would have been interesting if answered.

I would have asked him bout the series of incidents involving his company that date back to 2004. They range from sending out men on a mission to Fallujah without proper equipment, vehicles, training, or even good directions that led to their death, as well helping the Iraqi insurgency.

A simple yes or no question would have been, “Has your firm, based on these patterns of incidents, faced any legal or disciplinary actions from the U.S. government? Have they (the guilty contractors) ever been prosecuted, or lost a contract, or been fined for anything based on this?” Because it seems, as far as the record shows, that the only people to take action, to create consequences when there has been negative effect, has not been the folks (The U.S. Government) paying these contractors. It’s been three groups onlyy:

1) The four mothers of the Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah.

2) The parents of the men who were killed in the Blackwater plane crash that resulted from their firm’s actions in Afghanistan.

3) And now, The Iraqi government that just got fed up waiting for our government to do something.

Here’s another question I would’ve asked: “We understand that you fired the person that got into a drunken argument on Christmas Eve and killed the Iraqi Vice President’s security guard. Our question is who flew him out of the country? Which entity made the decision to get that individual out of the country 36 hours after they potentially committed a murder, which in effect assured prosecution would be difficult and impede the investigation? Was Blackwater operating under its own discretion? Or, were they ordered to do so by its clients and the State Department? Who was it?”

Another one is “Why do your helicopters in Iraq not carry any identifying insignia, such as the numbers painted on U.S. Army vehicles? Is there something that sets the company aside from standard U.S. tactics?

It would have been very interesting to ask him, “Isn’t it interesting that the same government individual, who has been reported by one investigative committee to have made the initial decision for Blackwater to get its first contract, is the brother of the current State Department Inspector General, who was found, by the same committee, to have intervened in preventing an investigation into Blackwater’s illegal activity?”

These are some examples of the actual questions we could’ve asked. Instead, one side wanted to talk about everything from Moveon.org to diabetes medication. And the other side oddly kept asking Eric Prince why he didn’t prosecute his employees, but conceded ultimately that he couldn’t because he was just a C.E.O. of a company.

However, what’s good is that no one can claim they don’t know about this anymore. Now, when there are negative consequences, they (The U.S.) have to deal with them. But they couldn’t claim that before. For example, in 2006 in a public setting right across the street from me, President Bush was asked about the legal status and accountability of private military contractors in Iraq. One student questioned him, and Bush answered with a giggle, you can see this on the web, just Google it. Bush ultimately said, “I’m gonna ask Rumsfeld about it when I get back.” If that question had been answered a year ago, we wouldn’t be in this problem todaybut, it wasn’t.

Your research has borne many egregious example of private contractors’ reckless conduct in Iraq–including the Blackwater shootings, CACI and Titan firms responsible for the notorious Abu Ghraib interrogations, and Aegis Company’s “trophy video” in which they posted a video of them shooting at civilians to an Elvis song on the net. What I and others want to know is what legal repercussions do they face, if any, under international law and U.S. law?

What could happen, or what will happen? I mean there are multiple laws that could be applied. Iraqis are claiming that since Blackwater didn’t have a license to operate in Iraq, they didn’t fall under the immunity laws protecting other private military contractors (Initiated under Paul Bremer in 2003 as head of the CPA).

They also say they want Blackwater to pay over $100 million dollars to the families of the shooting victims. So, instead of sounding like they were trying to ensure rule of law, it actually sounded like an extortion attempt. They undermined their stance.

Now, there’s also application of U.S. civilian law. There is a law in the books called Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA). Basically, it says if you are working for the U.S. government abroad in a military setting, and you commit a felony, then we can potentially prosecute you back home. It has only been utilized twice in Iraq. One time when a contractor came back and was found with child porn on his computer, and another time when there was an attempted rape of a U.S. reservist by a contractor. The challenge of this law is that it gets difficult when you add a non-U.S. victim and a “battlefield environment” like we have in Iraq. So, it’ll be hard to ask a civilian jury sitting in the U.S. that we want you, the jury, to not only decide whether a law was broken, but whether the “rules of engagement” in a “battlefield environment” were broken as well. It is very difficult.

Another method is the Uniform Code of Military Justice – the court martial system. In October 2006, the law was changed to allow private contractors to fall under it, and it is probably the most apt one in finding these Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisoor square shooting liable. They were involved in a combat zone, an operational setting, and the question is did they violate the rules of engagement or not? The problem of that is that the law was passed in October, but the Pentagon never issued a procedure to its JAG officers on how to actually use it.

So, is there some semblance of hope that there could be legal accountability?

Could be, but again, it’s political will that matters most. With Blackwater, it’s like one of those things when projecting the stock market, do you look at past behavior and past facts? Or, do you try and project forward? Using past facts, you shouldn’t expect anything to happen. Projecting forward? There’s enough attention around this now that you might seem some action along the side – but not major action.

We’ve woken up to the fact that the emperor has no clothes, but right now all we’re willing to do is to ask him to please put a scarf on.

In your article “America, Islam, and the 9-11 War” you state, “The erosion of American credibility in Muslim world not only reinforces recruiting efforts of its foes, but denies Americans ideas and policies a fair hearing.” How does this play out in Iraq?

The U.S. was in a strong position during the Cold War with being internationally viewed as a “beacon on the hill.” It both had power, but also more importantly, popularity and respect. It wasn’t that we had the Atom bomb, but it was also that we had McDonalds and Coca Cola. We had universities people wanted to come to. We had blue jeans. Now, we have power, but now it’s not as easy to apply it in the current conflict. Instead of being seen as that “beacon”, America, “the land of blue jeans”, has become internationally viewed as the “land of armed jumped suits.” And that is not a positive when you’re dealing with the problem at hand.

It is not that the U.S. is locked in some battle with the broader Muslim World. That is simply false. But you do have a really weird international change, where for the first time a state and a religion are looking at each other through a different lens–a lens of misperceptions. It is a lens of ignorance, but also a lens of anger. And it’s getting worse, and we have to recognize that. It’s actually fulfilling Bin Laden’s wishes, he wanted this kind of conflict, and it is creating it. It’s both on how we conduct ourselves, but also how we speak to the world.

Peter, you’re the co-founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World at the Saban Center at Brookings. In your experience and opinion, how do we convince the Muslim world that our actions, whether they are rooted in “regime change”, or “humanitarian” or “reform” efforts, are not mere tools of American imperialism?

Basically there was an era where the U.S. had it right, and Louis Armstrong sang about it during his jazz tours when he went around the world on behalf of the United States. Louis Armstrong wasn’t a stooge, but he spoke the truth and that compared very positively to what they, the people, were seeing from the Soviet Union. But the line that encapsulates what we need to do today is to “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

There are clearly things that are dragging us down and are not all that useful. Accentuate the positive. There are lot of things that the U.S. does like help local NGOs on the ground, and investment in education. We have an amazing spirit as a nation, in terms of not just with the government does, but what the broad base of American society does. We do that but we can do a lot more.

For our generation, this is the equivalent of our cold war. This is our calling: to bridge this growing divide between the U.S. and the Muslim world. It’s incumbent on us whether we are in government or outside government. Whether we are a corporation or an NGO. Whether it’s faith based or not, it’s incumbent on us to bridge this divide.

The same thing goes for the clear negatives that are dragging us down. Those are easy to pick off, you know, most people universally recognize that while the Arab-Israeli peace will not be easy in any shape, way, or form, at least showing action on it is something we can do, instead of ignoring the problem. Same thing goes for GITMO (Guantanamo Bay). We painted ourselves in a corner with that, and we need to find a way out.

Iraq. It’s very clear that not only now is it a half trillion dollar investment gone bad, but in terms of U.S. funds, that money could have been spent on lot more effective things. Like I’ve said, it has been hammer to our public diplomacy.

And finally, the problem with our relationship via authoritarian leaders in the Middle East region. It is clear we have struck a deal with the devils and we are not getting much out of that deal – and that is true. We can pick off the regimes where that is happening and not only does that not help our battles with the extremist groups, but it also undermines our broader effort to speak on behalf of democracy every time we cozy up to a dictator. Clearly, we have to start to disentangle ourselves and start to pressure them on some of the things they can do. An example, I’d say to a current ally, “Buddy, we love what you’re doing in giving us intelligence, although it’s sorta funny you only give us intelligence a day before one of our senior official visits. But, we don’t really like what you did to crack down on free media or that you jailed democracy activists. We are not going to turn aside from that anymore.”

We have a record of doing that–that type of dialogue – and it worked in the transformation within South Korea during the Cold War, the transformation that happened within Philippines is another example. We can have a similar attitude towards our very ostensible authoritarian allies.

What of “Islamofascism”: An accurate assessment of our enemy or a politically convenient and sexy, new term of choice by certain ideological pundits?

It’s not new, and no one likes it. It was a stupid, stupid phrase to use in the first place. It was completely politicized, and they very quickly realized that. Now, the flip side is there are certain people running with it these days to make it appear that the broader U.S. really does believe this term.

Can there honestly be a lasting peace between the United States and the “Muslim world” in our lifetime, or this just whimsical naiveté?

I think there can be, but it’s not going to come in a matter of years. It’s going to be generational and maybe even multigenerational if we are going to be honest about it. But the fact is there are all sorts of amazing transformation and changes that are going on in the world. This is only one part of it. In part, it’s because the world is changing so fast, but I think there are things that can happen. The problem for us on the U.S. side is that we’ve really wasted the first couple of years of this (Post 9-11). We could’ve done things more positively, and we did a lot negatively that we are going to be dealing with the consequences for at least a generation. But that doesn’t meant all is lost.

Look at the French and the Germans. They spent literally almost a millennium fighting each other. If you would’ve said in 1945, “The French and German would later be part of this grand consortium. They would have a fairly closely aligned foreign policy and domestic policy. They would be sharing laws, sharing economics, basically they are not going to be considering each other as enemies, but considering themselves as friends they can’t live without.” If you would’ve said that in 1945, someone would’ve sent you to the Loony Bin. So, we can take hope from those examples. There we are today.

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com