The US Government’s privatization of war has taken a turn for the sleazy in Afghanistan, according to this article from Mother Jones. In a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, The Project on Government Oversight detailed a wide range of frat house antics perpetrated by private contractors (read: mercenaries) of ArmorGroup North America while guarding the US embassy in Kabul. According to Mother Jones, offences committed by the Government-employed mercenaries include “Drunken brawls, prostitutes, hazing and humiliation, taking vodka shots out of buttcracks.”
That’s right. Buttshots of vodka in the US Embassy in Kabul. Of course, this sort of Girls Gone Wild behavior pales in comparison to some of the more heinous acts committed by mercenaries in government employ, most notably the 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians by trigger-happy Blackwater troopers. However, in a country as conservative and Muslim as Afghanistan, the fallout from news of ArmorGroup’s antics will hardly help with the efforts of the US Military and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to win the trust and support of the Afghan public. In the face of growing dissatisfaction with widespread corruption, and a rapidly-expanding Taliban insurgency, this news will only serve to increase already widespread resentment against those who many view as foreign occupiers.
Beyond the immediate consequences for American and ISAF soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, these incidents highlight the folly of the increasingly popular practice of the American military of outsourcing jobs that would normally be filled by American troops to outside mercenaries. On the surface, the policy seems to make a sort of shortsighted sense. Hiring a private contractor to guard an embassy or diplomatic convoy frees up more soldiers to actively hunt insurgents and engage in combat operations. The American military is all-volunteer, with no conscripts and anemic recruitment figures. With an enormous portion of their resources devoted to fighting two wars, the military needs all the help it can get.
This highlights another problematic area in America’s military machine. Many of the men and women who sign up with corporations such as ArmorGroup and Xe (formerly Blackwater – they quietly changed their name in the midst of the PR fallout following the 2007 massacre) do so motivated by the higher wages and better benefits these companies offer in comparison to the military. The consequence of this is less oversight for these mercenaries and, judging from their affinity for bodyshots and bloodbaths, decreased discipline. The news of these incidents spreads and further ravages the reputation, not of the companies themselves, but of the American war machine and government they are associated with. In wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where winning favorable public opinion is paramount, these actions are completely inexcusable.
A possible solution to this problem is to raise the wages and improve the benefits offered to American soldiers. I am not advocating an increase in military spending – quite the opposite, in fact. The budget of the Department of Defense is inexcusably bloated, and an overall reduction of its spending would free up funds for other programs, such as education and healthcare. However, a readjustment of spending within the Department itself could do much to free up funds for grunts on the ground. The American military today is run by men who seem to still have one foot in the Cold War mentality of the 1980s. Multibillion dollar B-2 bombers and crackpot plans to shoot down missiles with laser beams from space are of little use to soldiers fighting a guerilla war in underarmored Humvees. Clearly, some fiscal soul-searching is needed in the Pentagon.
This trend of privatization of the military is deeply worrisome. And it doesn’t merely extend to the Department of Defense. Privatization extends to a shockingly diverse array of aspects of American life, including the prison system. This raises tough questions. Corporations exist for the benefit of themselves and their shareholders, not the American government or its foreign policy. Who are these people really serving? If we are going to employ them, can we at least implement some sort of effective oversight policy? Satisfactory answers to these questions are conspicuously absent.