was just about landing in Baghdad as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates touched off from Islamabad.
Biden had come to Iraq with promises that the White House would appeal the dismissed case of five Blackwater guards accused of killing up to 17 Iraqis in 2007. Gates, in his attempt to hit a home run for Pakistani hearts and minds, confessed to a boiling political issue - that Blackwater is operating in their country.
Except he disowned Blackwater as soon as he outed it.
“They’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theaters of war involving the United States,” he replied to a question on XE, formerly known as Blackwater.
His admission unleashed an immediate uproar in Pakistan’s government and media, and a flummoxed Gates reacted with mechanical denial. The next day he held a press conference to categorically announce, “Department of Defense (DoD) does not use Blackwater in Pakistan. We have no connection with Blackwater in Pakistan.”
But the hole in Gates’ logic is obvious: DoD wouldn’t be in charge if the State Department or the CIA is the contractor. The reality remains that Blackwater is operating in Pakistan under US command and/or in a private capacity.
Now Gates just tore down the last of its shield, took three steps to the left, and acted like he never said anything. A day later Biden throws another presidential punch at Prince. America’s highest officials, in front of the global media, are ganging up on the secret backbone of the US military to make themselves look better.
Sound like a wise plan?
“I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder, opens in his Vanity Fair profile. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”
Venting on The New York Times article C.I.A. Sought Blackwater’s Help to Kill Jihadists in fall 2009, Prince blames “Democrats in Congress” for covering their own necks by leaking information against him. Fumed that his hard earned money goes to legal fees instead of R&D to “serve the US government,” he has no doubts about a liberal double-standard. Compared to outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, “what happened to me was worse.”
If Prince has been “royally steaming” for years, getting ran over by both Biden and Gates within 48 hours must have made the pot boil over.
The White House and Congress are right to treat Blackwater personnel in combat like US soldiers, not a shadowy, extra-judicial force skirting international law. The military advantages Blackwater affords are often outweighed by political, propaganda, and moral costs. On another level, legal cases involving private military companies (PMCs) should be treated within a comprehensive counterinsurgency, not isolated in a US court room.
In turn Blackwater cannot be used as a political scapegoat where US policy collapses - like Pakistan.
PMCs exist to provide a layer of protection between the US government and its covert operations, a barrier that becomes vulnerable and unstable when exposed or unmonitored. For this reason Prince favors increasing regulations and oversight, searching for all the legal security he can find from his political opponents.
But clarifying the law and administering justice is only half the battle and overlooks a more pressing concern - PMC chain of command is in dire need of restructuring.
In the mold of Goldwater and Nicholas, PMCs require reintegration into the overall military structure to meet the demands and trends of 21st century warfare. PMC organization and authorization is predicated on the days of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney's quest for cheaper costs and less accountability. The White House, Congress, and Pentagon together must unravel the web spun by the Bush administration to keep them blind of each other.
And they should hurry.
Prince doesn’t sound like a man who take punches lying down or goes quietly into the night. Insisting “I’m through” after he retires from Blackwater, Prince entertains the idea of teaching with a straight face. “Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too,” he says, raising the exact analogy.
Mild mannered history professor by day, global black-ops commander by night.
From his headquarters in North Carolina, or a new HQ, Prince can track targets for assassination, provide security for US diplomats, and oversee logistics transports from his airstrip to private installations in Afghanistan. He admits to funding private projects for years, penetrating “denied areas” and “hard target” states where US forces have trouble entering for political reasons.
“We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability,” he explains. “If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out... I’m painted as this war profiteer by Congress. Meanwhile I’m paying for all sorts of intelligence activities to support American national security, out of my own pocket.”
In a twisted way Gates speaks the truth. Blackwater could conceivably operate in Pakistan of its own accord, intuitively flocking to America’s next battlefield. So where to next?
Blackwater dominates Afghanistan, probably operates in Yemen and Somalia, rumored to be in Nigeria, could be anywhere in Asia or South America. Prince has entertained the idea of private training forces and a complete paramilitary brigade to be rented out to foreign governments. Expanding his air-fleet and deep-water naval capabilities would be a natural progression.
And why not launch a satellite? Prince’s cash should be good in Russia. Anything seems possible after the rise of private military corporations.
So visualize, in 10, 20, 30 years, a Blackwater training or running operations to the highest bidder, American or foreign, and holding all types of secrets. What will stop Prince, a man of loyalty, if his loyalty is broken? Now isn’t the time to make an example out of Blackwater - make an example out of America.
Treat the system, not the symptom. Clarify political and military command of PMCs and undergo transparent legal reform to expunge them from Washington’s political agendas. Keep foreign civilians safe and protect relationships with foreign states through organized accountability.
And prevent US-founded PMCs like Blackwater from going rogue, before our own waves hit us in the future.