Why “Guards Gone Wild” are a symptom of a much bigger challenge for policymakers…

The revelations of out of control behavior among the guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul no doubt brought to mind the images of out of control behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib. But there is an important distinction. The guards at Abu Ghraib were U.S. military personnel. The embassy guards were hired guns, ...

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581302_090904_roth2b2.jpg

The revelations of out of control behavior among the guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul no doubt brought to mind the images of out of control behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib. But there is an important distinction. The guards at Abu Ghraib were U.S. military personnel. The embassy guards were hired guns, part of the outsourcing explosion that is transforming the way the United States conducts its foreign policy.

The embassy guards were not employees of the U.S. government, did not report up a chain of command to senior U.S. military officers who could make career-ending decisions for them, were not subject to the same rules as U.S. military personnel and, perhaps most importantly, blurred important lines about the nature and role of government.

The revelations of out of control behavior among the guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul no doubt brought to mind the images of out of control behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib. But there is an important distinction. The guards at Abu Ghraib were U.S. military personnel. The embassy guards were hired guns, part of the outsourcing explosion that is transforming the way the United States conducts its foreign policy.

The embassy guards were not employees of the U.S. government, did not report up a chain of command to senior U.S. military officers who could make career-ending decisions for them, were not subject to the same rules as U.S. military personnel and, perhaps most importantly, blurred important lines about the nature and role of government.

As most people now know, they also allegedly engaged in “lewd and deviant behavior” featuring nudity, drunkenness, hookers, and other behavior more suited for the cast of a Joe Francis video than U.S. embassy security forces, particularly those in a dangerous environment or a country in which strict Islamic values played such a central role. Why it took a report from the Project on Government Oversight to call out these Guards-Gone-Wild and their employers at ArmorGroup, a subsidiary of Miami-based Wackenhut Services, Inc. is a question worth asking.

But the bigger question in the wake of this behavior and other examples of out of control contractors, most notably the cowboys from Blackwater, who allegedly killed as many as 17 Iraqi civilians while providing an escort for State Department personnel in Baghdad’s Nissour Square, is about the centrality of outsourcing in the conduct of sensitive U.S. operations worldwide. 

The Congressional Research Service reported that well over half of America’s manpower in Afghanistan, for example, is comprised of contractors — almost 70,000 of them. They cited it as the “highest recorded percentage of DoD contractors in any conflict in the history of the United States.” 

How did we get here? Well, some of it was clearly expediency … beneath which investigation will reveal another level of expediency. The first level is the one cited by government officials hiring the contractors: they provide skill sets needed by the government and the ability to deploy human resources quickly in difficult circumstances. The second level is that by using contractors, the Bush Administration was able to field twice as many people in Afghanistan with half the political exposure. Headlines report troop deployments. They ignore the ArmorGroups and Blackwaters until they screw up, misbehave or start making obscene amounts of money … all of which are part of the story of the Bush War on Terror.

But at another level, not only do they put America’s goals at risk, they also raise important questions about fairly fundamental questions like “who has the right to legitimately use force?” Traditionally that’s a prerogative reserved for states, notes Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics and director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, and author of  the much anticipated One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy, to be published by Yale University Press next month. But by handing over a license to kill to big American companies, that line is blurred observes Stanger, which plays directly into the hands of America’s enemies.

Stanger is not, it should be noted, an adversary of using outsourcing to leverage American government resources. Indeed, her much-needed upcoming book considers how broadly outsourcing has transformed the way government works in a wide range of issues including areas such as development where NGOs and other private sector players add a great deal of value. But she is a sharp critic of what she sees as outsourcing approaches that undercut America’s foreign policy interests either by compromising values or raising risks. (See her recent U.S. News column “How the CIA Became Dangerously Dependent on Foreign Contractors” which addresses similar problems associated with the agency’s use of contractors in covert programs to hunt down and kill al Qaeda members.)

Her point is simply that while it makes sense to leverage government resources with private sector capabilities in many instances, we need clearer rules and guidelines about how and when to do it. Her book could not be coming at a more auspicious time and one hopes that her work will get a close reading at State, the Pentagon, and from the leaders of the Intelligence Community.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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