"What's it like to work in Iraq?" a media representative asked an American senior executive whose company was responsible for rebuilding a share of Iraq's infrastructure. He thought for a moment and said, "It's not engineering, it's combat engineering." The problem, he noted, was that private sector construction professionals were not accustomed to executing combat engineering projects, and they had to climb a steep learning curve. The most important lesson has been, "If it can't be secured, it can't be done."
It is, of course, the security professionals serving on corporate staffs and supporting contract personnel who have had to address the challenge of securing all aspects of the work. As we saw firsthand, those challenges have been considerable.
Part of the problem was that no one originally envisioned such a large role for private security. Early on in the post-war period, when civilian contractors began to bid for reconstruction work, there was an expectation that the military would secure movements to and from work sites as well as provide site security. In fact, early government requests for proposals (RFPs) didn't even mention the need for contractors to secure their operations; it was assumed that the military would do that.
But after a brief period during which coalition forces tried to meet contractor expectations, the level of opposition in post-war Iraq began to outstrip the coalition's capability to deal with it, and military support for contractor operations began to fade away. Military forces assigned to contractors were redirected against the fast growing insurgency. The responsibility for operational security fell quickly to the contractors, with the one notable exception of the search for weapons of mass destruction.
Firms had no choice but to turn to private security companies for help. With one or two exceptions, like the company that secured media personnel during the war, private security was not ready from any perspective to provide the level of professional support required to secure civilians in the early days of the resistance/insurgent environment. It took a great deal of hard work--and some luck--to bring security levels to where they needed to be.
Not only were security managers trying to put together private security staffs to support operations, they were also looking for office space inside and outside the Green Zone, trying to figure out how to create infrastructure to support the client's requirements, and developing relationships with coalition forces for intelligence and quick reaction--to name but a few of the issues that had to be addressed.
With regard to the hiring of security officers, some companies chose to go with expatriates. Most found out that the process of recruiting expats meant counting on recruits from the world of special-operations veterans from the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa, and Australia.
Others chose to lessen costs with a mix of more Iraqis, which was encouraged by the coalition as a way to employ the many unemployed Iraqis, including soldiers let go when the Iraqi Army was disbanded. Many private security companies entered into agreements with connected Iraqi businesses that then recruited former members of the Republican Guard and Iraqi Special Forces.
The challenge was to find qualified Iraqis without compromising security. Nothing like a traditional background check was possible, of course. We did not see any instances of insurgents infiltrating the forces, but we were concerned that Iraqi security officers might be intimidated into providing the insurgents with information about our movements. For that reason, we did not reveal route choices or missions to Iraqis until just before we were ready to go.
Although Iraqis have proven their loyalty and courage more often than not, their level of training has not consistently inspired confidence among the civilian work force they are securing. We at first had some problems with unqualified Iraqi nationals hired through security subcontractors, but we then began to require that the subcontractors provide only fully trained Iraqis to protect our operations.
The issue of Iraqi training for service as site security guards, although improving, remains a continuing challenge. It is a critical path item for private security companies to continue to improve training for Iraqis so that they have the requisite driving skills, proficiency with weapons safety, and marksmanship, as well as the knowledge of tactics and crowd-control skills needed to stop their fellow countrymen, who are hired as site laborers, from walking off the job with project resources.
It should be noted, however, that many Iraqis employed by private security companies deserve substantial credit. They have come a long way since the occupation began. Many of them are considered collaborators in their communities. They receive threats and are subject to intimidation directed against them and their families. Given the expanding nature of private security in Iraq, these Iraqis may ultimately form the base of private security companies in Iraq.
On the move.
Private security companies have also had to put together protective security details (PSDs) to secure movements, because contractors must move around to get work done. We found that doing so was difficult, because some parts of the country were simply too dangerous to drive through, and military aircraft were not available to fly our people unless they happened to be going to the same location as well.
The greatest threats to movements have been the mobile ambush and improvised explosive devices (although suicide bombers are now also becoming more common). To counter these threats, PSDs travel fast. It is not uncommon to travel sixty miles per hour or more in traffic on busy streets. From the corporate safety perspective, the increased chance of a traffic accident that might result in injury or even greater exposure is a growing concern. But as we watched PSDs practice their tactics under the arch of Saddam's crossed swords in the Green Zone, there was hope that driver training and expat supervision would help PSDs know when to put the pedal to the metal and when to back off.
Site security presented its own challenges. In the best case, there would be time to prepare the site and have security in place before civilian workers moved in to begin work. Such luxury was not, however, always available, as client schedules that were linked to political agendas made time spent more critical than resources or money. The bid processes to select security contractors at each site to deal with physical security requirements, standing up the guard force, and moving workers to the site were often happening nearly simultaneously to meet schedules.
Perhaps going forward, corporate security professionals can caution their project managers to ensure that time is allotted for a thorough project analysis and reconnaissance so that appropriate security steps can be taken before work begins. Since some project managers will challenge the security manager's recommendations, security professionals will need good interpersonal and sales skills to make the case that security compromise can't be tolerated just to save a few days.
But security professionals must also understand the unrealistic scheduling demands placed on construction contractors and how heavily they weigh on construction professionals whose success or failure is measured by schedule and budget results. Ideally, there should be a senior project manager who serves as a commander for issues like asset sharing and who can resolve disputes as a final authority. This senior project manager must bring an understanding of engineering and construction business issues, while keeping security as a first priority.
Whether concerned with site security or security of personnel and resources being moved, good intelligence was critical to the successful outcome of each project. Security managers had to be completely locked into the best possible intelligence network.
Road movements demanded the most timely information so that the security team could avoid being out when it would be best to be hunkered down waiting at a secure site until roads cleared. But good intelligence does more than keep people out of harm's way; it can also be used to dispel rumors and quiet those workers who may have begun to crack under the constant pressure.
Many of the contractors have added an experienced intelligence specialist to the security team. This individual tracks trends like the time and location of incidents so that they can be plotted and security managers can use the information as a planning tool to determine which roads should be used at which times.
The provision of intelligence to contractors is one area that has already been improved since the turnover of authority to the Interim Iraqi Government (IIG). The new Project and Contracting Office (PCO), an Army organization operationally controlled by the U.S. Department of State, is making strides to provide better guidance to security contractors on issues like general operational guidance and rules of engagement, which was lacking during the era of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
PCO isn't stopping there, however. The office is setting up Operations and Intelligence Centers that work for both coalition forces and private security companies to share information and provide mutual support, when possible.
Since the turnover of power from the CPA to the IIG, there has been an increased recognition of the need to get Iraqis back to work (although the problem of vetting remains, given the lack of time and the paucity of official data for background checks). This issue has given rise to some conflict because, as the IIG becomes more confident, it is taking issue with some of the reconstruction plans imposed by the coalition both in terms of the types of projects and how they are executed. Some IIG members feel that there should be smaller, more dispersed projects that employ more Iraqis nationwide rather than the larger projects that tend to have more expatriates involved in their execution.
These aspects of the effort to rebuild Iraq are less publicized. So, too, is the effort by contractors willing to go "out of scope" to reach out and close the gap between occupied and occupier, when possible. Government contracting officers should encourage this community outreach because it is effective as a force multiplier for security. Getting to know the sheikh of sheikhs in the local area, building a relationship based on mutual respect through enlightened labor relations and community outreach, and putting a human face on our efforts has helped us to keep sites secure when unexpected uprisings or other issues arose that threatened them.
At one project location, south of Baghdad, east of Al Hillah, the most influential sheikh in the community was an integral part of the project planning. In exchange for jobs, he gave his word that expatriate personnel would be safe on the site. When the rise of al Sadr's militia threatened project personnel, he was true to his promise.
Expatriate managers saw the surrounding area fill with the cleric's supporters. Reports of kidnapping of foreigners were featured on televised news programs, and project personnel saw coalition partners in retreat from engagements with militia members; fierce fighting raged not far from the project. There were tense moments for everyone involved, but we were able to continue operations and complete the project.
The relationship with the sheikh was critical in avoiding violent incidents that might have resulted in a disastrous outcome. In the end, the sheikh recognized that getting his people back to work and providing an environment that would allow them to enjoy greater prosperity was the greater good for his community.
Recent media reports have characterized some private security providers as mercenaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly there have been negative incidents, but overall the effort to rebuild Iraq could not be accomplished without the private security effort. Even the head of the CPA, when on the move, has been secured by private security; that is also the case for the new ambassador and for officials at other governmental agencies when they cannot justify a request for military protection that takes troops away from the counterinsurgency.
Most of the expatriates involved in private security are highly professional, and many see their work in Iraq as a patriotic effort to support the coalition's efforts to rebuild Iraq. Certainly, they make money--good money--but they are also putting their lives on the line and working 20-hour days, and their contribution has been invaluable to the success of the overall mission.
Given the threat and the coalition's effort to suppress it, private security will continue to play a role until Iraqi security forces are sufficiently capable to replace it. Consequently, private security companies will continue to be scrutinized by elements within the coalition, the IIG, and the media. That's appropriate. With that in mind, private security companies must take responsibility for ensuring quality; they should address self-regulation of their operations as well as seek closer ties and better working relationships with the Iraqi government.
One glaring and universal complaint shared by all who work in Iraq is the military's inability to consistently secure five miles of road connecting the Green Zone with Camp Victory and Baghdad International Airport. This area is our most secure area in the country, yet we can't count on having that road under control. One wonders how long it will be until the authorities ask private security to propose a plan to keep that road open to traffic at all times.
It won't be a surprise if private security with its unique blend of international military and law enforcement expertise and close protection experience is asked to solve the problem that has eluded permanent solution. It may even be a good first mission for the newly minted Iraqi private security force.
Tom Flores is Fluor Corporation's senior director of corporate security and Jim Earl was Fluor's Iraq security manager, and is awaiting assignment to a new project. They are both members of ASIS International.