Friday, February 26, 2010

A Poorly-Aimed Bill

Representative Bernie Sanders (D-VT) will soon introduce the "Stop Outsourcing Our Security Act" in Congress. The act would prohibit the use of private contractors for military, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and armed rescue functions. I think this bill is unnecessary and counterproductive. Below is an email that I just sent to my Congressman, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC):

Dear Congressman:

I am one of your constituents who is currently working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad, Iraq. Rep. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) will soon introduce the "Stop Outsourcing Our Security Act". The act would prohibit the use of private contractors for military, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and armed rescue functions.

After having been in Iraq for 17 months now and counting, I see this Act as misguided. There are still lots of very valid reasons for using private security guards.

Here at Victory Base, we use Ugandan and others as guards at entry points all over the base. They're armed because this is still a war zone. If they were gone, then we'd have to bring several hundred more junior soldiers to pull various kinds of guard duty just for this base, and several thousand for the theater. There are guards at the gates, at the entry points for most buildings and offices, and escorting local and third-country nationals doing construction and other work. Trust me, this kind of guard duty is a waste of a trained U.S. Army soldier.

When I move around the country to our offices and job sites, I am taken by a private security firm who's under contract to the Corps. These guys are experienced, skilled, and professional - they're not maniacal killers as the press likes to portray them. Their mission is to get me from point A to point B and back again without any trouble, and they do that well. If we had to rely on US troops to get our job done, we'd need about another 500 soldiers just in Iraq; maybe double that in Afghanistan. And that's just for the Corps.

Politically, there is a huge difference between an Army soldier and a civilian security guard in the local community. Imagine if a foreign leader - the Prime Minister of Iraq, say - came to Washington with a contingent of armed Iraqi soldiers in Strykers and HummVees to escort him around. Americans would go nuts. The same thing happens here in Iraq: our heavy-handed (by necessity) military presence leaves a sour taste in most Iraqi's mouths. Private security firms, like those we use and those that escort Embassy officials, are lower-profile, using cars and trucks that are usually modified civilian vehicles, and the security guards may even be in coat and tie if the occasion demands it. A small group of up-armored Ford Excursions makes much less of an impact than a train of huge MRAPs.

Proponents of the legislation point to the disparity between what contractors make and what soldiers make. Private security contractors, at least those from western countries, do make a lot more than military members. The Ugandans make far, far less. But pay is only a small part of it. If we need more contractors, we hire them, and they're on the job within weeks. When we don't need them, we cut them loose, and we're gradually doing that now. We can't hire and fire soldiers that quickly. It takes one to two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit, train, and deploy one soldier. Then they're with us for a period of years.

The differences in missions are what set contractors and soldiers apart. Soldiers are part of the government and their mission is to execute government policies. Contractors are there to provide support: food services, transportation, maintenance, and self-defense security among them. Take away the contractors and you'll have either a much bigger military presence, or else a reduced military effectiveness. And as our military leaders, from Mr. Gates on down, have made clear, our military is already over-stretched and over-stressed.

We're moving toward a more realistic balance of contractors now. The Bush mindset of privatizing everything is gone, thank God. But there is still a need for contractors in a war zone, so this bill makes no sense. It removes a valuable tool from our toolchest based on misperceptions of things that happened years ago.


Skip Rohde

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