There are times, when reading about current world affairs, that I wish my Yiddish speaking grandmother was still alive, if only so I only hear her say again, “that takes real chutzpah,” when listening to some outlandish claim by some vainglorious twit.
Case in point was a recent eyebrow raising assertion by Erik Prince, former Navy Seal officer and cofounder and former head of the legendary private security firm once known as Blackwater, then Xe Services, then Academi, and now part of Constellis Holdings.
It’s a shame the [Obama] administration crushed my old business, because as a private organization, we could’ve solved the boots-on-the-ground issue, we could have had contracts from people that want to go there as contractors; you don’t have the argument of U.S. active duty going back in there,” Prince said in an on-stage discussion featuring retired four-star Gen. James Conway. “[They could have] gone in there and done it, and be done, and not have a long, protracted political mess that I predict will ensue.
Why is this outlandish? A little history is in order.
After Blackwater was sold to a group of investors Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates, where he helped build up a force of several thousand commandos for Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, according to a 2011 report by the New York Times.
Subsequently he helped establish Frontier Resources Group, a “Private Equity Investment Firm focused on natural resource development in leading edge regions,” where he is now chairman. By regions, they mean Africa, where they are helping Chinese companies set up shop.
Last year, he also published a memoir, which is his attempt at a payback at the critics in both the U.S. government and civilian society who he feels “misconstrued and misrepresented” Blackwater’s work.
To be fair, he is somewhat right. Blackwater’s work was often casually condemned by people who had never been in the military, let alone been in a war zone. Sloppy reporting, general unfamiliarity with the private military and security contracting industry, not to mention the influence of popular culture, also played a role. The U.S. State Department, with which Blackwater had large contracts, did prevent him from defending its actions in public.
On the other hand, Blackwater hugely benefitted from its work for the U.S. government. In “Shadow Force,” my 2009 book on private security contractors working in Iraq, I noted that at the end of 2006 the total value of all of Blackwater’s federal contracts was $1 billion. That was a percentage growth since 2001 of 80,453. Prince didn’t have a problem working for the U.S. government when it hugely benefitted him financially. If his treatment by the U.S. government was so bad, he could have just walked away. He chose not to.
More importantly, Blackwater did do things wrong in Iraq. Beyond well-known tragedies like the 2004 killings of Blackwater contractors at Fallujah, who were unprepared and under resourced, or the 2007 killings of Iraqi civilians at Nisoor Square by Blackwater contractors, four of whom are awaiting verdict at a recently concluded trial, there were many instances of improper behavior.
A significant, unrealized, problem with Blackwater was simply that it tried to do too much, too quickly and Blackwater’s often unresponsive and clueless management was not up to the job; often being more concerned with winning contracts than properly implementing them.
This point is documented in the newly published book “The Bremer Detail” by Frank Gallagher, the Blackwater contractor who headed up the personal security detail for Ambassador Paul Bremer, back when he headed the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004. It’s worth reading this, if only to remember that Blackwater contractors were there to defend their clients, not to engage in offensive combat operations.
Given that history, one must wonder exactly when Erik Prince decided that private security contractors are the same as regular soldiers. He certainly didn’t think so when he wrote his book. Quite the contrary, he wrote:
At home, armed private security guards help protect airports and banks and office buildings. They staff checkpoints at military bases across the country and they’re stationed at government offices in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the private sector supplies the U.S. military with bullets and bulletproof vests, rifles and communications gear, tanks and ships and jets. The general public—much less Congress-never really questions whether or not those duties should be outsources. Yet Blackwater became famous—some might say infamous—for combining the two. We were a private company providing armed guards to a war zone.
Prince is a former U.S. military officer, so even allowing for the fact that he was in the Navy, not the Army, he has to have a better idea than most in what is involved in actually fighting an opposing army, for however ill-trained and disorganized ISIS is, that is what it is and it needs to be taken seriously.
The U.S. Army certainly does. It just announced it is deploying a division headquarters to Iraq, which will be responsible for coordinating the efforts of the 1,600 troops President Obama has sent to Iraq.
If anybody seriously believes that Blackwater, especially given its own past troubling history, of insufficiently supporting people working on various contracts, ranging in number from a handful to a few dozen, is capable of coordinating the actions of a few thousand battlefield soldiers, which is what contractors would have to be, we’re all in trouble.
This, by the way, is no slam of the security contractors who did work in Iraq, most of whom conducted themselves professionally and acquitted themselves honorably, under conditions that would give most people nightmares.
It simply recognizes that what is needed in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS requires a fundamentally different skill set. The TOE (Table of Organization and Equipment) that is going to be required there is not what a private security company such as Blackwater does. Fighting ISIS will require soldiers, not armed guards.
In fact, there is only one private company in recent times that could have done something like this. That was the South African company Executive Outcomes which closed its doors in 1989.
EO initially trained and later fought on behalf of the Angolan government against Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA after it refused to accept the election results in 1992. In March 1995, EO contained an insurrection of guerrillas known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. The RUF’s signature brand of atrocities — including amputations of hands, arms and legs of tens of thousands — rivals the horrific crimes of ISIS.
Now, if Eeben Barlow, the former South African officer who founded and headed EO, wants to organize a private army to fight ISIS I’d at least be willing to consider it. But, to paraphrase what was said in the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle, Erik Prince is no Eeben Barlow and Blackwater is no EO.
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