By Ben Jury

Source: Patrik Nygren/Flickr

Ah, the new year. Whether you’re still regretting your overly priced New Year’s Eve Uber or putting off your New Year’s Resolution another day (or year), the writers and editors at the US-Middle East Youth Network are excited to bring you fresh insight on the latest news from the region. We’ve got a number of exciting projects lined up for this year, including collaborations with other universities across the country.

So much has changed in the last year throughout the region. The multilateral nuclear weapons deal with Iran, the ongoing refugee crisis throughout the Middle East and Europe, the terrorist attacks in Paris, and protests against trash and corruption in Lebanon are just a few of the headline grabbers from 2015. Perhaps It was also a watershed year in the war against the Islamic State. With ISIS’s loss of Ramadi’s center just a few days ago, the tide seems to be turning against the terrorist group, though its far too soon to tell what the future holds for ISIS.

Yet so much has remained the same. Five years on, President Obama’s 2009 call for a ‘New Deal’ between the United States and the Muslims of the world rings hollow. Five years on, the Syrian Civil War rages with no end in sight. Continued drone strikes in Yemen and other countries throughout the region put civilian lives in danger. American troops remain stationed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and more than a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. All the while, private military contractors continue to operate and profit from continued presence in the region.

What we need now from U.S. policymakers and politicians is the resolution to make tangible steps towards Western military disengagement in the Middle East. Similarly, it’s high time that Western multinationals and governments ditch the military-industrial business model in the region and formulate a new strategy to support our supposed allies without treating them like second-class powers. Rather than using predatory and neo-colonial economic policy under the guise of spreading democracy and peace, Washington needs to reconsider its grand strategy for foreign policy abroad. President Obama has a little over a year left in office to realign American strategy towards more equitable and mutually prosperous relations with Muslim countries. It’s time to make good on these high-minded promises.

Whether or not you believe the United States is an empire in decline, it’s clear that America’s role in global politics is shifting. As we move towards a more multi-polar system with Russia, China, and other nations exerting more and more power within and beyond their regional centers, the old model of imperial politics must fade into obsolescence. Remaining a strong global power may well be Washington’s priority. Brute force and coercion aren’t the only ways of preserving American strength and influence in the world, much less in the region. Sending American boots on the ground will always be an unsustainable, quick fix solution to a perennial problem. MENA nations need to build up their own national security infrastructures to combat terrorism and domestic threats to their sovereignty, all the while remaining transparent. Diplomacy, soft power tactics, and fair-minded coalition building with regional actors will ensure the Iran keeps its promises better than anyone.

At the very least, a country’s foreign policy represents its vision for how the world should be. 2016 is a promising year for change, with a number of important elections (including the U.S. presidential election) and global summits. Yet the chance for meaningful change requires political courage. Change in the world, in the Middle East will require bottom-up organizing and active, meaningful participation by the people affected by policy changes. Chances of that happening on a systematic level are slim. After all, only 10% of New Year’s resolutions are successfully followed through with come December 31. Maybe this year, the West will seek a change and follow through.


By Patrick Lim

Blackwater conducting a test near Kabul, Afghanistan of a new delivery system for getting items to troops on the ground for extended missions. (Source: US Army Spc. John P. Ledington)

Four employees of the private security company Blackwater Worldwide (now Academi) were sentenced in mid-April – one to life and the others to 30 years – for their roles in a 2007 mass shooting in Nisour Square, Baghdad that killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians.

The contractors had maintained that they were shot at by Iraqi insurgents and were merely returning fire; however, the prosecution’s witnesses said the shooting started immediately after the company rolled into the square. Sniper Nicholas Slatten was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life for starting the incident by shooting a young man in the head. One more contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, has testified against his four colleagues but has not yet been sentenced.

The US government had contracted Blackwater during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to carry out several functions, predominantly protecting diplomats such as Paul Bremer and Hamid Karzai. No private military contractor was more powerful or influential than Blackwater at its peak. This shooting, however, destroyed the company’s reputation and thrust the company (and industry) into a perpetually negative light.

The use of private contractors was so prevalent during these wars partly because it was an option that had not previously existed for policy makers. The companies could act as “multipliers of force” and offered a solution for a smaller political price than deploying the 135,000 more troops to Iraq. As a result, the industry was relied upon heavily, and this is reflected in the numbers: contractors received $138 billion from the Iraq War alone (compared to $63.7 billion for 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations). Furthermore, during the 1991 Gulf War, the ratio of US military personnel to PMC employees was 1:100; however, in Iraq, the ration was 1:10. It is estimated that the number of contract personnel exceed 180,000 at one point, greater than the 160,000 deployed US troops.

Beyond the questionable ethical nature of the industry, the Nisour Square shooting is one of many examples of the controversial use of private contractors by the US government in the Middle East. Everyone remembers Abu Ghraib: the harrowing pictures of naked detainees in stress positions, being stacked in a pyramid and being forced to participate in degrading behavior by the US military. However, what is less well known about is the role of private contractors – CACI and Titan (now L-3) – which were employed to carry out interrogation and translation services. Instead, there are incidents documented in the Fay Report that they directed and carried out some of the torture. Both companies were subsequently sued for their role in Abu Ghraib. In 2013, L-3 agreed to pay $5.28 million to 71 former inmates held in the detention facility and at US-run sites from 2003 to 2007, for conspiring to torture detainees. As regards the case of Al-Shimari vs. CACI, in 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit decided to reinstate the case after a lower court had previously thrown it out. As with Nisour Square, the criminal proceedings of these cases are extremely complicated, not in the least because these violations occurred abroad and contractors are immune from being prosecuted under Iraqi Law due to Order 17 issued in 2004 by CPA head, Paul Bremer.

More commonly during the Iraq War, private contractors provided support from training services to logistics. This is also not without contractor misconduct: Halliburton-KBR was one of the largest firms and was accused of war profiteering, as they are alleged to have sold overpriced gasoline and charged for services that they did not carry out.

Yet, the use of private contractors by the US lies not only with companies, but also with individuals. Raymond Davis was working with the CIA when he shot two people and killed a third as he was escaping in open daylight in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011. Davis, previously a Blackwater contractor, is more talked about than the Osama Bin Laden raid in the country, as it signaled that the US was operating covertly Pakistan. Another example is David Passaro, who is the only contractor to have been prosecuted for torturing detainee Abdul Wali in Asadabad, Afghanistan.

Despite the controversial nature and history of the industry and being an expensive way of increasing presence on the ground, as mentioned, the companies carry less political risk. Furthermore, the contracting government is able to shun accountability if anything were to go wrong with the contract or company. With regard to logistical support, certain jobs in war zones had always been assigned to the military and the need to address this “waste” of personnel combined with the military’s desire to downsize makes contractors an attractive option. Lastly, the government does not have to worry about as much strategic planning and can focus on other aspects of foreign operations or even domestic issues.

The private contractor industry is not new but seems to have recently become a new key component of US foreign policy. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US had a monopoly over this industry and was in the perfect position to shape international norms pertaining to its behavior. The failure to do so could lead to an industry that is even more unchecked: incidents such as Abu Ghraib and Nisour Square will only be the beginning, as many companies are being started all over the world; for example, Erik Prince the famed founder of Blackwater is working on two in the Gulf and China is in building its own. It is the obligation of the international community to introduce new laws or to amend old ones, as previous efforts, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Montruex Document, are either still vague or ineffective.


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