Monday, January 31, 2005


The arrogant tactics of the private military company that escorted top US officials around Iraq are partly to blame for the rebellion against the US occupation that has taken scores of American and thousands of Iraqi lives, according to a Marine colonel who helped train Iraqi troops in the initial stage of the war.

"They made enemies everywhere," Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, an expert on guerrilla warfare and a senior fellow at the National Defense University told a conference on military contracting last week. He was referring to the tactics used by Blackwater USA, the North Carolina company that was hired by the Coalition Provisional Authority to provide security for L. Paul Bremer, the US administrator who was dispatched by the Bush administration to run Iraq in 2003.

A few minutes earlier, Chris Taylor, Blackwater's vice president for strategic initiatives, had boasted about the protective cordon his company provided to Bremer. Under a "turnkey security package" with the CPA, Bremer was accompanied by 36 "personnel protection specialists," two K-9 dog teams and three MD-530 helicopters built by Boeing Corporation.

"The fact that he (Bremer) is home with his family is the only measure of success," said Taylor. "He survived and that's good." Blackwater provides the same kind of protection today to US ambassador John Negroponte, who succeeded Bremer when the formal occupation (theoretically) ended on June 30, 2004.

But Hammes, who was in charge of training and equipping the fledgling Iraqi army that Bremer hastily recruited after his disastrous decision to disband the army once loyal to Saddam Hussein, said the Blackwater team acted more like storm troopers.

"The problem is, his guys are trying to protect the ambassador. But I would ride around with Iraqis in an Iraqi truck, and they were running me off the road. We were threatened and intimidated. But they (Blackwater's security) were doing their job, doing what they were paid to do in the way they were paid to do it. And they were making enemies on every single pass out of of town." The "first rule" of an insurgency, said Hammes, is "you don't make any more enemies."And Blackwater clearly failed in that mission.

Hammes told his story to make a point: that there is an an inherent conflict of interest between contractors, who are in Iraq to make money, and the military itself, which is there to attempt to win a war. And because that war has now become a classic guerrilla war, with both sides competing for the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people, anything that the United States does to anger and alienate the population becomes a weapon - one that the fighters have managed to exploit (this may explain, in part, the apparent decision by many of the Iraqi fighters not to disrupt the voting yesterday).

In his response to Hammes, Taylor dug himself into a deeper hole. He agreed that "there's an aggressive nature" to Blackwater's tactics in moving US officials from point A to point B. But "you're paying us for our judgement," he said. If someone suggests that these tactics are having "an adverse affect in our operations in Baghdad," Blackwater will take that into consideration. "We'll try to work something out while still being able to provide the service under the contract we've provided." Exactly.

Hammes pushed on. It all "depends on the integrity of the company," he replied. He then offered up a scenario of a situation where a contractor might be called into, say Liberia. "If my job as a contractor is to keep the peace, suppose I'm really successful and there is peace. My contract ends, right? So suppose I stir up a little on the side?"

That was too much for Taylor. "Oh, come on," he responded. But his only assurance that something like that couldn't happen was his company's patriotism. "All of us are absolutely in support of security and peace and freedom and democracy all over the world," he said. "Its from that part of the heart that our people come to work." That's why he "hates the M word." The term mercenary is a "misnomer, inappropriate and certainly inaccurate," he insisted.

Right. What other word could be used to explain Blackwater's latest mission, in oil-rich Azerbaijan, which Taylor also discussed. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic led by an autocratic government that routinely jails journalists and dissidents and "torture, police abuse, and excessive use of force by security forces are widespread," according to Human Rights Watch.

Like Iraq, Azerbaijan has lots of oil, and has attracted significant investment from Exxon-Mobil, Conoco, BP, Unocal, Halliburton and other multinational oil and oil-services companies. According to Taylor, Blackwater has contracted with Azerbaijan's government to support its "Maritime Commando Enhancement Program." Under this contract, Blackwater - which was founded by former Navy SEALs - "is creating a SEAL team for Azerbaijan to help with its oil interests and monitor what's happening in the Caspian Sea in the wee hours of the night."

Taylor admitted this is "politically sensitive," but argued that if a company like his "wants respect as a business and a solid reputation as actually affecting the strategic balance in any area of the world, then it must be part of the give and take. We like to think we do that on a daily basis."

But "give and take" with whom? Well, go to the website of the United-States Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce and click on "officers" and you'll quickly see who Blackwater serves. James Baker III. Henry Kissinger. Brent Scowcroft. Etc. And down there at the bottom of the page are two of the chamber's former members - Dick Cheney and Richard Armitage. These men are the power behind the throne in Azerbaijan; it's impossible to imagine that government hiring Blackwater without a nod from one if these principals.

So what are the lessons in all of this? One, Blackwater's project in Azerbaijan is clear evidence that contractors have crossed the line from pure mercenaries to strategic partners with the military-industrial complex. Two, Colonel Hammes' warning about Blackwater's impact on the war in Iraq has implications far beyond the Middle East. And three, the antiwar movement needs to focus as much on privatization as it does on the imperial policies of President Bush and his neo-con supporters.

Note: Last Friday's conference was organized by the George Washington University Law School with support from the International Peace Operations Association, which represents, Blackwater, MPRI and other major contractors.