Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Private militias and their accountability

Posted by David Kassel on March 4, 2008

Michael Walzer, a contributing editor to The New Republic, writes in the current issue of the magazine about the use of private militias and mercenaries in Iraq and elsewhere, and concludes it’s “mostly a bad idea.”

Walzer points to Max Weber’s definition of a state as holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a society or territory.  And he adds that:

It is a very dangerous business to loosen the state’s grip on the use of violence, to allow war to become anything other than a public responsibility.

But that is exactly what has happened in Iraq.  To be fair, the current Bush administration didn’t pioneer the use of privately run militias for security and other jobs that the administration wasn’t willing or able to order its own troops to do.  Walzer notes that during the wars over the former Yugoslavia, then President Clinton permitted a private U.S. firm to train Croat soldiers in fighting the Serbs.  But might it have been better, he asked, if Clinton had gone to Congress and laid out the argument to use American troops to help the Croats?  Using private soldiers “makes policy invisible,” he notes.

Well, maybe not so invisible when those private soldiers start killing civilians, as Blackwater USA guards did when they fired into a crowd last September in Baghdad.

As Walzer points out, soldiers get out of hand at times as well, sometimes for similar reasons, including a lack of adequate training, equipment, and support.  But that, he says, “is the result of political decisions, not market processes.  And, for such decisions, we know whom to hold accountable.”

And it’s not just politicians who are held accountable when soldiers get out of hand, it’s the soldiers themselves.  As Walzer notes, solders are trained to fight in accordance with a code of conduct enforced by military courts, which in turn are overseen by civilian courts.  By contrast, security companies in Iraq operate under a voluntary, and unenforceable code of conduct.  Moreover, in an administrative law imposed by Paul Bremmer in 2004, guards are immune from prosectuion in Iraqi courts.

It remains, unclear, Walzer says, whether contractors can be tried by military courts.  They can theoretically be brought back to the U.S. for trial in federal courts.  But while there are some 100,000 American contractors in Iraq, not one has been prosecuted for an act of violence.

Violence by private militias is only one of the accountability issues raised by the government’s increasing use of private contractors in Iraq.  The government is simply unable or unwilling to adequately monitor a wide range of activities of private contractors, from reconstruction efforts to interrogations of suspected insurgents.   The result is not only unplanned violence, but general mismanagement, shoddy construction, and poor delivery of services. 

But there’s no doubt as why the use of private contractors holds such appeal to so many administrators in government.  As Gilmour and Jensen have pointed out:

…if private actors are not subject to the rules set for government action, delegating authority to private parties may allow the government to do through them what it cannot do itself.

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