When the Iraqi government last month demanded the expulsion of Blackwater USA, the private security firm, I had one reaction: It’s about time.
As a U.S. official in Baghdad for nearly two years, I was frequently the “beneficiary” of Blackwater’s over-the-top zeal. “Just pretend it’s a roller coaster,” I used to tell myself during trips through downtown Baghdad.
We would careen around corners, jump road dividers, reach speeds in excess of 100 mph and often cross over to the wrong side of the street, oncoming traffic be damned.
But much more appalling than the ride was the deleterious effect each movement through town had on the already beleaguered people of Iraq. I began to wonder whether my meetings, intended to further U.S. policy goals and improve the lives of Iraqis, were doing more harm than good. With our drivers honking at, cutting off, pelting with water bottles (a favorite tactic) and menacing with weapons anyone in their way, how many enemies were we creating?
One particularly infuriating time, I was in the town of Irbil in northern Iraq, being driven to a meeting with a Kurdish political leader. We were on a narrow stretch of highway with no shoulders and foot-high barriers on both sides. The lead Suburban in our convoy loomed up behind an old, puttering sedan driven by an older man with a young woman and three children.
As we approached at typical breakneck speed, the Blackwater driver honked furiously and motioned to the side, as if they should pull over. The kids in the back seat looked back in horror, mouths agape at the sight of the heavily armored Suburbans driven by large, armed men in dark sunglasses. The poor Iraqi driver frantically searched for a means of escape, but there was none. So the lead Blackwater vehicle smashed heedlessly into the car, pushing it into the barrier. We zoomed by too quickly to notice if anyone was hurt.
Until that point I had never mentioned anything to my drivers about their tactics, but this time I could not contain myself.
“Where do you all expect them to go?” I shrieked. “It was an old guy and a family, for goodness’ sake. Was it necessary for them to destroy their poor old car?”
My driver responded impassively: “Ma’am, we’ve been trained to view anyone as a potential threat. You don’t know who they might use as decoys or what the risks are. Terrorists could be disguised as anyone.”
“Well, if they weren’t terrorists before, they certainly are now!” I retorted. Sulking in my seat, I was stunned by the driver’s indifference.
The Iraqis with whom I dealt quickly learned to differentiate between the U.S. military and private contractors. The military has established rules of engagement, plus it is required to pay compensation for damages (though it is a difficult and bureaucratic process). Blackwater seemed to have no such rules, paid no compensation and, per long-standing Coalition Provisional Authority fiat, had immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
As we do the work of bridge building and improving our host citizens’ lives, if the people providing our transportation and security are antagonizing, angering and even killing the people we are putatively trying to help, our entire mission is undermined.