Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2011

State of Affairs: Three Years After Nisoor Square: Accountability and Oversight of U.S. Private Security and Other Contractors

September 2010

Human Rights First


On September 16, 2007, Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe) private security contractors working for the U.S. Department of State killed 17 unarmed civilians and wounded 24 more in an unprovoked incident in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. A political firestorm immediately ensued in Iraq, the United States and around the world. The incident exposed what had been clear for several years: The United States lacked a coordinated, systematic policy for overseeing private contractors abroad and holding them accountable for serious violent crimes. Now, the United States’ reliance on private security contractors in zones of armed conflict is increasing as is the urgent need for effective contractor oversight and accountability. Private contractors continue to outnumber U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both the surge in Afghanistan and the drawdown in Iraq require additional support from private security and other contractors. It is estimated that up to 50,000 contractors will be required to support the Afghan surge and, with the military drawdown in Iraq, the Department of State plans to more than double the number of private security contractors it employs from 2,700 to 7,000. As Iraq and eventually Afghanistan move from military to civilian control and private contractors replace military forces there, the so-called jurisdictional gap over non-Defense contractors widens. If we learned anything from Nisoor Square it is that oversight and accountability gaps must be filled prior to increasing our private contractor force in conflict zones.