Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Remember Fallujah?

In March 2004, four Blackwater men went into Fallujah and never returned.
Their convoy was undermanned and under-armed. They did not even have a map. Yet they went into the most dangerous city in Iraq regardless, on what sounds to me like a non-critical assignment (kitchen equipment was involved) never to return alive. We all remember. Who can forget the image of the charred bodies swinging from the bridge?

It has taken their families four years to even be able to sue Blackwater for what they and many others perceive as their loved ones’ wrongful deaths, but now a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed the legal battle to begin. Blackwater will be held to account over the lack of maps, equipment and adequate training. It’s a start. But it’s not enough.

What came after the horrible deaths of the Blackwater men was the April 2004 siege of Fallujah by the US military during which more than 600 Iraqis died.
If Blackwater are found guilty of putting their men in harm’s way due to inadequate preparation, intel and equipment, then will they be also charged with being the catalyst that led to the April siege? And while we are at it, will accountability extend to the US authorities that put Blackwater in this position in the first place?

If Blackwater are found guilty of the death of 4 men who knowingly agreed to take on the danger that working as a hired gun in Iraq entails, then what of the 600 Iraqis who had no choice in the matter?
Deplorable collateral damage, I hear you say? I think not. More of a monumental lack of foresight on behalf of decision-makers.

Blackwater are paid to provide security. Policy is not their domain.
They provide security for politicians, reconstruction workers, humanitarian aid agencies, diplomats, facilities and the armed forces themselves (it’s called force protection and it allows the soldiers to take a nap while private guards pull sentry duty). The maths behind this is simple: more contractors = fewer soldiers = less political discomfort around body bags, as dead contractors are not included in the official death toll.

So, Blackwater’s business is security.
But as a commercial entity, their main business is more business.
So security in Iraq is placed in the hands of private businesses that above all else want more business. And I am not suggesting that the security personnel or their bosses sabotage the war. I am suggesting that they have no reason, incentive, interest, ability or authority to carry out their duties in a way that will go beyond security provision and towards peace-keeping and peace-building.
Keeping someone or something is a very different kettle of fish to keeping the peace.

So. Do we see the flaw in the plan yet?

We have neglected peace-keeping in the name of fragmented security provision, contracted out bit by bit to disparate corporate entities that sell security and have a vested interest in sticking around to provide more of it.
Sustainability is not a problem. These companies have shown themselves capable of swift expansion whenever needed. And as each bit of infrastructure, each army base, each UN agency, each high-ranking diplomat is protected under a different contract, security becomes a very narrow concept in Iraq.

If you are paid to keep someone safe that’s what you do. That's all you do. If you are paid to keep something safe that’s all you focus on. Everything else is assumed to be someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem.

So more security provision ends up meaning, by default, less safety for those not under contract, those who (even if not targeted) happen to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. It so happens that most of those are Iraqis.

So more security provision in Iraq ends up meaning less peace for Iraq.

We may have just shot ourselves in the foot there, right? Only our failed policy is someone else’s ravaged homeland. Right?
Right. And so very wrong.

The magic of accountability

When Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw a shoe – and then another – at G.W. Bush many people thought ‘oh man, I wish I had done that’.
If only.
But if we threw a shoe for every mistake the Bush administration made in Iraq, the White House would drown in an avalanche of footwear simply over the review of the disastrous first weeks when the wrong people were given the wrong jobs, the wrong tools and no clear instructions or leadership.
By the time we start looking at the failures of post-invasion reconstruction efforts, I suspect we’ll be running out of shoes.

But now things will change, right?
Even though we know that Obama is inheriting the biggest US-made mess both at home and abroad, we still hope he has a charisma-infused magic wand that will allow him to fix things so we can all live happily ever after.
In reality of course, Obama will be constrained by what is already there and may not actually have the luxury of his convictions when it comes to Iraq.

That much was obvious when he failed to publicly denounce the privatisation of the war – a trend that has become coterminous with the Bush administration but was actually gathering momentum already under President Clinton – and promised a focus on accountability instead. Obviously, with no magic wand at his disposal, things can't be fixed overnight. But there may be magic hiding in this statement all right.

Since Paul Bremmer’s Memorandum 17, private contractors have been pretty much exempt both from Iraqi and home jurisdiction (wherever that may be). Although the tide is turning and lawsuits are currently being filed in Iraq and in the US against both individual contractors and the companies that employ and deploy them, private security firms remain a prime example of power without responsibility. Unsurprisingly, private security spokesmen dispute this, pointing out that the market has its own standards and, as commercial entities, it is in the private security firms’ interest to ‘get the job done’ as doing so gets them repeat custom. What these spokesmen fail to dwell on is that not getting the job done simply loses them a client, while it loses other people their sovereignty, their dignity, their life.

‘Get rid of them’ is obviously the simplest solution to all this.
Simple but not practical.
Limiting the use of private contractors would entail withdrawing from Iraq and/or Afghanistan or replacing them with more soldiers on the ground. With private contractors carrying out security and training operations on behalf of the US across the globe, 'getting rid of them' would also entail a radical re-think of US interventionist politics worldwide. Courtesy of Donald Rumsfeld, privatisation has gone so far, that reversing the trend will take years.

So wand-less Barack Obama promises us accountability rather than miracles.

And we all know that accountability could be an empty word and a series of committee meetings. Hardly the stuff of magic.

Yet accountability could also represent a first step towards regulation, so that the likes of Blackwater don’t get away with murder; control over the tendering process and a closer look over the complex nexus of interests served by the current arrangement.
Accountability could actually allow us to ask ‘what is it we are trying to achieve in Iraq and are these guys helping or hindering us?’.

Accountability could be an empty word. Or it could mean brining the whole force of democratic process to bear on the problem. And that would be magic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.