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Project on Government Oversight




Col. T.X. Hammes Says Private Security Contractors Perform "Inherently Governmental" Functions

October 14, 2010 


Retired Marine Corps Col. Thomas X. Hammes laid out his views on the strategic implications of using private security contractors in war zones at a presentation before the Middle East Institute on Tuesday.  Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert and the acclaimed author of The Sling and the Stone, a book exploring fourth generation warfare, had a fair, but highly critical assessment of the U.S.’s use of security contractors.

“No one’s asking the fundamental question: Should we use contractors?” Hammes asked. “I would argue we should not.”

“I would say anybody armed inside a country using deadly force in your name is inherently governmental,” he said.

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian made a similar point before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in June.

Hammes’ assessment comes just days after a scathing Senate Armed Services Committee report on the use of security contractors in Afghanistan.  As of March, there are over 16,000 security contractor employees in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service, and over 11,000 in Iraq.  A series of reports have argued that security contractor abuses and the ties some security contractors have with warlords can undermine the U.S. mission in war zones.

Among the reasons for his opposition to security contractors, Hammes said the widespread use of security contractors has “made it easier to go to war,” because it is less difficult politically to deploy contractors than members of the military.  He also said that the U.S. government cannot conduct effective quality control of contractors—in contrast to robust efforts to ensure unit quality in the U.S. armed forces. Contractors also fragment the chain of command—a big problem in a war zone.

“If we don’t have the political will to mobilize” U.S. government employees or military personnel,  Hammes said, he believes the next best option for manning critical security functions should lay with host nation government personnel. The third best option is to hire host nation contractor employees. The last resort in his view? U.S. contractor or third country nation employees.

In a September paper for National Defense University, which POGO is making available online for the first time, Hammes further argues that “contractors compete with the host government for a limited pool of qualified personnel and dramatically change local power structures.”

POGO also spoke yesterday with Doug Brooks, the president of the International Peace Operations Association— essentially a trade association of private security contractors—mostly about the recently released Senate report on contractors in Afghanistan.

The Senate report found that some security contractors were relying on warlords, some with ties to the Taliban, to provide their personnel. Brooks said this was part of the risks inherent to a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. “If you’re going to be there, you’ve got to take these risks,” Brooks said.

He said it’s hard to avoid powerful members of Afghan society who haven’t had some connection to Taliban in the past or who may turn to them in the future. “That’s the reality of Afghanistan. Even with the politicians.”

But “you have to use local contractors whenever you can,” Brooks said, “unless you want to alienate the local population.” The economic benefits to the local population through employment can be useful to the counterinsurgency effort, he said, echoing contracting guidance issued by Gen. David H. Petraeus. However, he said, “you have vetting issues, you have security issues” when it comes to hiring local nationals.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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