Okay, I'm pissed off at the NY Times again. Today they posted an article on the use of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article gives the impression that contractors are a bunch of loose cannons, running around Iraq and Afghanistan unchecked, shooting up anything that moves, with little or no accountability. I found the article to be highly misleading. While many of the basic facts seem to be okay, they are not presented accurately nor in context.
First, they use the term "contractor" loosely. From the article, you'd believe that there were tens of thousands of men running around, heavily armed, and looking for a fight. The article explicitly states that there are more contractors in Afghanistan than there are soldiers. True. However, "contractors" include truck mechanics, computer technicians, supply clerks, US post office workers, construction supervisors, and a host of other non-combatant jobs which constitute the vast majority of civilian support. Even for those in the security field, most don't go outside the bases. They're "third-country nationals" (TCN's) from places like Uganda or Nepal, who stand guard at dining facilities, maintenance shops, unit compounds, or other places. Yes, they have AK-47's and other weapons, but this is a war zone, so they damn well better. These are the sort of routine jobs with very little threat exposure (besides the occasional incoming mortar round) that need to be done but don't require a highly-trained and very expensive US soldier or Western security specialist. The actual number of heavily-armed security forces roaming the Iraqi and Afghanistan countrysides are small.
The article cites several instances of contractor security forces shooting Iraqi non-combatants, mostly in the 2004-2007 period. All these reports came from those recently posted on Wikileaks. It's easy to critique these incidents from the safety of American soil and several years, but at the time, Iraq was a very hot war zone. As the article notes, 53 security contractors were killed in 2006 alone, an average of one a week. Attacks were happening by the hundreds, all over the country, every day. US soldiers as well as security contractors had to make life-and-death decisions on the spot with insufficient evidence. Quick: a car's coming at you and isn't slowing down. Is it an attack or is it innocent? That's all the information you have, and by the time you read to the end of that question, it's too late: somebody has just died, maybe the driver, maybe you. As Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq war, stated, "stuff happens". Nasty stuff. So, yes, you can comb through the Wikileaks documents and find examples of security contractors killing innocent Iraqis. You can also find examples of security contractors doing their job and getting their charges safely out of a trouble spot.
The Times article states "it is clear from the documents that the contractors appeared notably ineffective at keeping themselves and the people they were paid to protect from being killed." Bullshit. In my work with the State Department and the Corps of Engineers in Iraq for 20 months, our Blackwater and Aegis security contractors took us all over the country, in and out of some very dangerous areas, every day, safely and securely. During that time, there were literally thousands of trips. Sometimes they were attacked, most of the time, not. A very few resulted in injuries to those being carried. Only one of those trips, the Fallujah incident of May 2009 cited in the Times article, resulted in a loss of life for the people being carried. (Two of the three men killed were friends of mine. The two Aegis security guards in the vehicle survived. I wrote a blog post about it.) So: thousands of trips for the Embassy and Corps of Engineers, some attacks, a few injuries, one attack with fatalities. That doesn't sound "notably ineffective" to me. No, I've ridden around the country with those guys. I've seen them in action. I'd go with them again.
Normally, I find the Times to have good reporting on Iraq. They're the only US-based news organization that has maintained a permanent presence in Baghdad during the entire conflict. Their reporting is usually pretty accurate and nuanced. Unfortunately, they missed the boat on this one and produced a very misleading report.