Contractors Gone Wild
There seems no end to contractor abuse scandals in countries fighting terrorism or undergoing "nation-building." The latest to be reported in the media involves ArmorGroup North America, a private security firm guarding the American embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It began in Baghdad on August 9, when an ArmorGroup employee shot two of his colleagues dead.
The victims were Darren Hoare, 37, an Australian, and Paul McGuigan, 37, a Briton and ArmorGroup executive. The alleged killer, Daniel Fitzsimons, 33, is also British. ArmorGroup North America is owned by Wackenhut Services, Inc., a Florida-based company, which is a division, in turn, of a Danish enterprise, G4S, that advertises itself as the world's largest security company..
The shootings reportedly occurred late at night, inside the ArmorGroup compound in Baghdad's international area known as the Green Zone. Fitzsimons, according to a Baghdad source who declined to be named, is said to have shot his coworkers because they claimed he was homosexual. After killing them, he shot an Iraqi, Arkhan Mahdi, in the leg, then was arrested by Iraqi police (who now patrol the Green Zone).
Fitzsimons faces a possible death sentence. He will be the first foreigner employed in Iraq since the beginning of the 2003 intervention to be held to account under Iraqi law. Fitzsimons says he cannot remember the incident. According to the London Sunday Times, Fitzsimons was seen on an earlier occasion injecting Valium and morphine into his leg while already drunk.
Another trail of misconduct has led to an uproar in Kabul, where 16 U.S. embassy guards provided by ArmorGroup were fired in early September for alleged drunkenness and for forcing those under their control to engage in deviant and humiliating behavior.
U.S. press coverage of the Fitzsimons case has been minimal, and even the contractors' misbehavior in Kabul, although documented by video, has mostly been handled with discretion by the print media. The New York Times mentioned "lurid details" and "lewd conduct" at weekly parties hosted by embassy guards.
The Kabul carousing was disclosed when the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report on September 1. More information emerged in a suit filed September 9 by James Gordon, a New Zealander and former operations director of ArmorGroup North America. Gordon says he is a "whistle-blower," forced out of his job after warning company executives and the U.S. Department of State about the situation at the embassy. According to the New York Times, the POGO report stated that victims of "deviant hazing" included Afghans, whose conservative Muslim culture left them especially repelled by such behavior; those who refused to submit were dismissed from their jobs. The report described a " 'Lord of the Flies' environment."
Fitzsimons, the accused Baghdad shooter, has been treated in the British media as a case of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his prior military service in Iraq and the Balkans. But it would be a mistake to blame such dissolution on the stress of war alone. The Green Zone syndrome of alienation from the local population, as chronicled by critics of the Iraq war, is a ubiquitous feature of life among foreign administrators in conflict and post-conflict areas across the globe. Sex trafficking and corruption of locals have become prominent wherever operations are conducted by transnational bureaucracies like the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) along with the attendant ranks of nongovernmental organizations and private contractors. I have observed similar patterns in the Balkans for a decade.
The culture of the "internationals," whether contractors or functionaries, is remarkably uniform. Beyond their usually minimal knowledge of local realities, traditions, and languages, they are often young and inexperienced or old and exhausted. In the policing sector, some exhibit the cynicism of the professional mercenary. They are far from home and from any sense of restraint or accountability. They often exhibit contempt for their local colleagues.
Commenting on the investigation of ArmorGroup, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told the New York Times, "It's important that at no time, in our view, was the security of the [Kabul] embassy ever threatened or compromised." The argument is classic: It's not so bad if the guards kill each other or degrade local residents as long as institutional safety is assured.
David DeVoss, then a contract employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Baghdad, recounted in a 2007 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times an incident illustrating a similar attitude on the part of another security contractor, DynCorp International: "Inside the Green Zone," wrote DeVoss, "I told several colleagues about not stopping after hitting a pedestrian and then asked if I should report DynCorp's behavior to the U.S. embassy. 'You got back safely, didn't you,' came the response. 'So, what's your problem?' "
But this is a dangerous exercise in short-term reassurance. The Fitzsimons incident shows that "getting back safely" is not assured even for guards themselves in the current environment. And the damage to the firms' -- and the United States' -- reputation is obvious.
One Baghdad newspaper considered impartial in its posture toward the Iraqi government, Al-Nur, blamed the contractor Blackwater (now Xe Services LLC) for the Kabul fiasco, even though the firm was not involved; for Iraqis, "Blackwater" has become a synonym for all such companies. The Iraqi government accused Blackwater of criminal recklessness in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007; in December 2008, U.S. authorities indicted five Blackwater employees in those killings.
Another newspaper more critical of the government, the Sunni Arab-leaning Al-Mashriq, quoted Maha Al-Douri, a member of parliament from the pro-Iranian party of Moktada al-Sadr, alleging that Blackwater/Xe continues to operate in Iraq although its contract was supposed to be cancelled. Predictably, Al-Douri also claimed that Blackwater/Xe's activities were evidence of a conspiracy by the U.S.-led coalition to carry out "vicious assaults on Muslims . . . in a genocidal war against Islam."
And as recently as September 28, four Baghdad employees of DynCorp were reportedly arrested and severely beaten by Iraqi soldiers guarding the Green Zone. The alleged events were disclosed in an email to the Washington Post, which quoted an Iraqi official's complaint that the security companies "still consideer themselves above the law," although Iraqi sovereignty has obtained in the Green Zone since January 1.
Western reporting on ArmorGroup's misadventures mentions that the foot soldiers in the security firms are often unable to communicate with one another. According to sources in Baghdad, the decline of violence in Iraq has diminished the amount the U.S. agencies on the ground are willing to pay for security. As a result, the firms more than ever hire from low-wage countries.
"Security companies scour the world for low cost labor," said one source. "Sallyport Global Services, Inc., uses white South Africans to guard expatriate convoys and Angolans to stand perimeter watch. The Angolans, whose only European language is Portuguese, receive $218 a day and are ecstatic. Triple Canopy, a Virginia company selected to take over the Blackwater/Xe contract, hires Ugandans for $800 a month. Triple Canopy also hired Peruvians to guard USAID and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Unless you speak Spanish you can't talk to these guys."
In 2009, sex trafficking, which figures in the Kabul mess, remains a problem in U.N. and NATO peacekeeping operations. The State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report includes a document entitled "Stopping Human Trafficking, Sexual Exploitation, and Abuse by International Peacekeepers." It notes that in 2008 the U.N.'s Office of Peace Keeping Operations was investigating cases in Côte D'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, and East Timor. The same report admits that, while countries contributing contingents to U.N. peacekeeping forces are provided training "modules" intended to discourage sex trafficking by U.N. troops, the U.N. "is not able to verify if the training has been completed."
The U.N. is struggling to strengthen its response to the problem; revised training materials were to be released in the first half of 2009. Indicating the seriousness of the matter, the State Department notes, "U.N. missions . . . provide victims with medical treatment, counseling, social support, legal services, or material care. Children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers are also eligible to receive this assistance."
The report adds,
There were 83 allegations against U.N. peacekeeping personnel in 2008, down from 127 allegations in 2007. During that same period, the U.N. completed 82 investigations into new and pending allegations and deemed 65 of them credible. There were 14 repatriations and five cases of disciplinary action such as suspension, dismissal, censure, demotion, and referral to employers. Investigations for 52 cases are still pending.
The State Department's summary points out that inside OSCE missions, which draw administrators from the United States, Europe, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, information is distributed explaining that human trafficking is forbidden. But prosecution and punishment are left up to each member country, which is not promising in cases involving such human-rights violators as Belarus, Russia, Serbia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is of course unfortunate that OSCE should need to monitor its own cadres to prevent the sexual corruption of locals even as its missions are charged with educating those very publics about the issue.
Sex trafficking by international security employees, peacekeepers, and administrators naturally encourages local corruption. In July five members of the Kosova police came under investigation for trafficking while working at the airport in the capital, Prishtina. According to Kosova's opposition leader, Albin Kurti, one may judge the morality of the foreign administrators by the number of brothels that have appeared in his country. "They were not here before you came," he told the Swedish journalist Maciej Zaremba.
The impunity enjoyed by contractors and other "internationals" working from Baghdad to Kabul, from Kosova to the Congo, is merely symbolized by the incidents involving ArmorGroup. As Albin Kurti pointed out in the EU Observer of September 2, "We do not need more [foreign] policemen, prosecutors and judges, but doctors, teachers, agricultural experts and engineers." The same holds true in Baghdad and Kabul.