By some estimates, there are 30,000 private security contractors in Iraq — more than the number of troops deployed in the recent “surge.” Such figures lend some perspective to what’s at stake if the present backlash against private security contractor Blackwater USA leads to a congressionally mandated expulsion of private security contractors from Iraq.

Blackwater contractors have been under intense political fire since Sept. 16, when Iraqi civilians may have been caught in the crossfire during an attack on a U.S. Embassy convoy in Baghdad.

Although the facts of this incident are still under investigation by a joint U.S.-Iraqi panel, war opponents in Congress have already decided the facts of the matter and targeted Blackwater for intense scrutiny.

An honest debate about the wisdom of contracting out key functions is certainly healthy, but the debate over Blackwater and its peers should not stand as a proxy for the overall war debate.

The truth, which few members of Congress are willing to admit, is that Blackwater employees are doing some of the most difficult work in Iraq. And, they are doing a great job keeping Americans safe.

Blackwater’s 1,000 contractors protect key State Department diplomats — prized targets for insurgents. They have never lost a person they were assigned to protect, yet 30 Blackwater contractors have given their lives in executing their mission, and hundreds more have been seriously injured. And no one, of course, can forget the haunting images of the Blackwater contractors who were hanged from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004.

That’s not to say that better oversight isn’t critical — it is. But there are no easy answers.

First, consider that Congress itself contributed to the rise in importance of private security contractors. I remember well the debate in uniform during the 1990s. We folded unit flags to cut our military in half as lawmakers called on the military to downsize and outsource many of its core functions to the private sector to save money without losing capability. The “peace dividend,” it was called.

Congress shouldn’t be able to have it both ways, cutting military strength while refusing to allow private contractors to fill the “capability” void. In truth, they are responsible for the results of both.

What’s more, few have been willing to admit what the removal of private contractors from Iraq actually means. From one vantage point, it is a de facto endorsement of a larger surge in troop deployments. If private security contractors are forced to leave Iraq, the coalition will need to find highly trained active-duty soldiers and reservists to take their place. Gaps between tours would likely decrease.

With the troops already spread thin, however, it’s more probable that troops currently engaged in military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Iraq would be redeployed in a faster rotation cycle to serve on security details. Such a move would be disastrous, and it would add stress on soldiers’ families.

In other words, the current rhetoric about expelling private contractors is really just a way to appear serious about some of the public’s desire for troop drawdowns without actually taking that stand. It does not take a genius to determine that if you undermine contract security, you can undermine the war effort as an added benefit.

So far, Congress has been too timid to legislate withdrawal via the power of the purse. It would be reprehensible and politically cowardly to whittle our way to a drawdown by reducing the number of contractors as a backdoor means to undermine the war effort. Such action will surely strain the total force and put the lives of more American soldiers at risk by forcing them into an untenable situation to accomplish their current missions.

Like active-duty servicemembers and reservists, many contractors have made great personal sacrifices in pursuit of their mission. Most are either military veterans or former law-enforcement professionals, and the values associated with those professions don’t simply vanish when they arrive in Iraq.

Citing two or three examples of misconduct over the past several years as the premise for a contractor pullout is disingenuous at best. It is consistent with similar attempts by opponents of this war to portray a few wayward soldier incidents as the norm for the values and conduct of the military. It becomes the tasty morsel gobbled up by the news dailies and the filmmaker.

It’s pointless and destructive to use military contractors as a proxy for deeper arguments about the war in Iraq. Contractors currently serve a vital purpose in Iraq. There are simply too many of them serving in critical roles — and far too few servicemembers to take their place — to take the misguided push for expulsion seriously. Unless, of course, “quitting” is at the top of one’s agenda.

Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell (retired) commanded the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry “Regulars” and conducted combat in Tikrit, Iraq, from 2003 to 2004. He is founder and chairman of Vets for Victory, an organization “dedicated to educating the public about the war on terror and what will be necessary to achieve victory.”

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