I've been following the controversy over Blackwater in Iraq the same as other people, and reading scathing commentaries by Arab pundits like Fahmy Howeydi, Naji Hussein, Faisal Jalloul, and others. But I don't pretend to know very much about the details of private security contractors. Luckily, I do know Peter Singer of Brookings, author of the excellent Corporate Warriors and someone with real perspective on the full scope of the problem. Singer has just published a timely and deeply interesting report called "Can't Win With Them, Can't Go To War Without Them" (warning: link is to PDF) which argues forcefully that "the use of private military contractors appears to have harmed rather than helped the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq."
His argument applies specifically to Iraq, where he identifies a series of very specific ways in which the use of private contractors has undermined the counter-insurgency mission, and more generally to its pernicous role as an "enabler" of poor strategic decisions.
At the level of grand strategy, he warns that the availability of contractors "allows policymakers to dodge key decisions that carry political costs, thus leading to operational choices that might not reflect public interest." In other words, it allows the US to fight wars beyond the means of the all-volunteer army, thus allowing for a more aggressive foreign policy than an electorate might prefer. He details the many functions of these contractors, from logistical support to armed roles in the battlespace, and concludes bluntly that "the war in Iraq would not be possible without private military contractors." Where that could be used as testimony to their usefulness, Singer views it as an "addiction", a cheap fix which allows for poorly conceived military interventions beyond the real means of the United States.
More directly, he argues that the reliance on contractors undermines the very counter-insurgency doctrines on which the military's hopes currently rest. The availability of these contractors feeds a set
of perverse incentives - their financial interest is to build huge bases, for instance, with
elaborate (and expensive) logistics which alienate Iraqis and go
against counterinsurgency best practices as outlined in Petraeus's
manual. More significantly, perhaps, he shows in some detail how the contractors "inflamed popular opinion against the American mission through operational practices that ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency" and "participated in a series of abuses that have undermined efforts at winning 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqi people." He identifies a lengthy trail of contractor misconduct which did not begin a few weeks ago, pointing out that they are often "the most visible and most hated aspect of the American presence." A security contractor's job is, say, to get an official from point A to point B safely - not to win hearts and minds along the way. In a counterinsurgency which deeply depends on winning local support, this is a problem. As he quotes one Iraqi official, people just view the contractors as Americans. That they are above the law shines a glaring spotlight on the shortcomings of Iraq's alleged sovereignty, while also (and this is my interpretation of what Singer is saying) insulting the professional American military personnel who are operating under clear chains of command and codes of behavior.
There's a lot more there, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the background and wider implications of the current Blackwater controversy.