Private Military Companies, civilian contractors and the Global War on Terror
By James Lochbaum
Article ID: 1243
Recently, civilians working for Private Military Companies (hereafter called “PMCs”) have attracted a lot of attention from many western media outlets. In the wake of the deaths of four security contractors (from the US-based Blackwater Worldwide in Fallujah in 2004) more attention has been paid to these people than ever. PMCs are companies that take on jobs such as personal protection, convoy security, security consulting, and others that are traditionally performed by the military.
Much criticism has been aimed at PMCs in the past few years. Many detractors say PMCs are unnecessary and an affront to the armed forces of nation states because they are seen as being above the law. The critics often equate them with mercenaries, a term that has come to have very negative connotations. The fact of the matter is that PMCs are a force to be reckoned with and are here to stay.
The term “Private Military Company” is so broad and encompasses such a large spectrum of companies, that lumping those companies together is unfair and inaccurate. While the fighters employed by oil companies operating in Colombia may qualify as “mercenaries”, the employees of well established companies like the British-based ArmorGroup (which is actually registered by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior) certainly don’t seem to deserve the label. In this respect they are similar to the militaries of nation states.
Due to their privately owned nature, PMCs are criticized as being accountable to no one. While it is true they don’t have national leaders directly responsible for their actions, their contracts have very specific conditions that must be met and a company with any serious breach of contract can expect to face consequences. Also, there is legislation governing the behavior of PMCs operating in war zones. This legislation includes the Military Commissions Act and the recent amendment to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Both these documents have severe consequences for PMCs engaging in offensive military operations or violating the laws of the Geneva Convention. While it is true that these companies are not accountable to the same authorities and do not have the same internal policing methods as forces belonging to nations, they are by no means without responsibility.
Another issue concerning the use of PMCs is their relationship with the state by which they are employed. PMCs work on negotiated contracts for specific payments, they are not on a pay role like other employees of the state. Working on the right contracts at the right time can be extremely lucrative.
Firms like Blackwater Worldwide (which relies on no-bid contracts with the US Government for most of its income) have become quite adept at negotiating and taking just the right jobs. However, in the end it is the customer which sets the contract criteria. So when multi-million dollar contracts are handed out to a PMC the responsibility for this “pay gap” rests with the customer, not the PMC.
PMCs are by no means a new phenomenon. Look at history: the state-sponsored militaries we take for granted in the 21st century are the new phenomena. While the term PMC is relatively new, the jobs performed are not. The ancient Chinese, Persians, and Romans all relied extensively on mercenaries within their militaries. The Italian city-states of the renaissance used mercenaries extensively and the modern military lexicon owes much to these Italian mercenaries. Words like captain, company, and colonel all trace their heritage back to the mercenary companies of Italy. The British Empire used what was perhaps the world’s largest PMC, the East India Company, to regulate their holdings throughout the world. Today’s concept of state militaries has only been around since the early 19th Century when Napoleonic France used the strategy of levée en masse.
One often overlooked aspect of PMC is that of sheer necessity. In Iraq, PMCs are a force over 100,000 strong. That outnumbers the UK military, the second largest coalition force in the region, by a factor of ten. To suggest that these PMCs should be expelled means that coalition forces are going to have to come up with another 100,000 troops to fill these voids. PMCs are a smarter, more cost-effective choice in many situations. As the United States wages a global war on terror it has to be prepared to deliver local solutions to local problems on a global scale. A particularly famous and now defunct PMC is Executive Outcomes. This was used in the 90′s by the Angolan and Sierra Leone governments to expel UNITA and RUF rebel forces. Their rapidity and cost-effective actions are still touted today. This shows how a rapidly deployable, tailored force can take faster and more effective action than the bulky bureaucratic forces of nation states. The US military does not have nearly enough individuals with regional expertise to cover the globe and the cost of hiring and maintaining significant numbers of troops for every place on earth. But PMCs allow a government like that of the United States to hire highly specialized and mission-tailored units to supplement traditional troops in regions including The Philippines, Sudan and Haiti.
Critics of PMCs do have a valid point in saying we should watch them very carefully. While not dangerous in and of themselves, like all instruments of foreign policy, their effects are dependent on how they are used. There is no doubt that given the wrong employer and the wrong PMC, disorder and atrocities can occur. The effort should not be focused on doing away with PMCs, but rather monitoring who is employing them and how they are being used. The next logical step in such a progression would be to create organizations that would provide oversight to this process. Note that PMCs themselves have already constructed what could be the basis for such an organization. Known as the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), it has been criticized as simply being a lobbying arm for PMCs enriched by global conflicts. While IPOA definitely lobbies on behalf of its clients, there is also potential to interface with groups such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and others.
When the tools for proper oversight and accountability are in place, PMCs are a great asset in providing stability and security. We should focus on providing these tools rather than disband Private Military Companies. Ultimately we have to understand that PMCs are just like the state-sponsored militaries they work with: they are an instrument used to achieve an end. The instrument is neither good or bad, it is the way it is used that makes the difference.