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Impact of Private Military Companies on Security

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Published: Wed, 03 Jan 2018

What impact do Private Military Companies have on International Security?

1. Introduction

1.1. Scenes from Fallujah

Towards the end of March 2004, the world bore witness to by now familiar scenes of blood-letting from Iraq. Pictures captured on this occasion by an Associate Press journalist (Mascolo, 2006) showed Iraqis celebrating the killing of two foreigners. Emaciated and hardly recognisable, their bodies hung over the bridge they had just a moment ago attempted to cross. Some 30 miles west of Baghdad, the notoriously restless town of Fallujah formed the backdrop to the ambush where, it emerged from later reports, two of those killed as well as the surviving men were all American nationals who had been tasked with escorting the transportation of foodstuff. When they fell into the trap, all four had been sitting in their car. Following gunfire they incurred the wrath of insurgents keen to seek revenge on whom they saw as unwelcome occupiers by torching their vehicle (Scahill, 2006). Two of them managed to escape in time but the other two, it seems, could not retreat, either because they were already heavily injured or were already dead. Even to this day the precise circumstances of what really had happened remain unclear, and it will probably remain so.

What is clear, however, is that none of them – either the dead or the survivors – were bona fide soldiers operating in uniform. Belonging neither to the United States Army nor to any other army of the “coalition of the willing” stationed in Iraq, all four were, to all legal intents and purposes, “civilians”, who had, at least as it appeared initially, the gross misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But on closer inspection one could discern that all four of them were employees of Blackwater, a private security company headquartered in Moyock, North Carolina (www.blackwaterusa.com). Founded only eleven years earlier to the incident, Blackwater symbolizes the growth of a new and booming sector of the military economy, which entrusts private companies with tasks that had previously been preserved for the state. Referring to the process of deregulation, which had made this possible, the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, explained by way of comparison that, “we are trying to do for national security what Fed Ex did for the postal service. Fed Ex”, he went on to say in an interview with the Weekly Standard, “did many of the same services the postal service did, better, cheaper, smarter, and faster by innovating [which] the private sector can do much more effectively” (quoted in Hemingway, 2006). What his company was doing, he claimed, was nothing dissimilar and, in fact, in the national interest too, since his employees would save the American ratepayers a substantial amount of tax.

1.2. The challenge of Private Military Companies

For those who lived through the twentieth-century, where it was a given that state-instituted regular standing armies which recruited from its own people were entrusted with the nation’s security, this arrangement would strike an inconceivable note. Not even in the heyday of unbridled Victorian laissez-faire liberalism did the state feel the need to call upon publically-traded companies to look after its own geopolitical interests. Yet the self-confidence, expressed by Prince, in the capability of his private firm to provide a better service than the state cannot be pushed aside as mere marketing rhetoric. In 2003, for example, Blackwater, DynCorp and other private military companies (hereafter PMCs) turned over a more than impressive collective profit of 100 million dollars (Mlinarcik, 2006). If the prognosis of forecasters is any guide, this sum is set to double by 2010, making the military market a lucrative one and pointing to further deregulation. Limited to Iraq alone, where the incident in Fallujah took place, there were at the last count some 60 private security firms operating in the country, with a total number of 20,000 personnel, or “contractors”, on their books. So ubiquitous have PMCs become that their size now even dwarf that of the British army, the second largest state-sanctioned contingent in the area.

More importantly, PMCs have not limited their remit to support or mere logistics, situated far away from the field of combat, but ominously they now increasingly provide armed escorts, security in and around buildings and, if need be, take on roles which would normally be associated with soldiers in a regular army on fields of combat. Such a reliance on contractors moreover is set to escalate as states realise that outsourcing military responsibilities to these private firms, who typically hire experienced veterans of conflict, can be more effective as well as economical. Not least because of these attractions the United States government has taken out over 600 contracts in Iraq alone (Singer, 2003, 17). Such acts of outsourcing, it should be remembered, are not in themselves particularly unusual. Many states have had little qualms about taking on new spheres of responsibility while relinquishing others. Examples such as the postal service, transport and energy are recent industries that spring immediately to mind, and in which there have been notable, if at times controversial, successes. But the sanctioned use of force – the maintenance of security – has been an area that the state has traditionally monopolised. No modern political ideology, either left or right, has questioned the centrality of the state as unrivalled arbiters of peace, and herein lies the reason why the emergence of PMCs strikes the alarming cord it does.

1.3. State, security and PMCs

Traditionally, it has only been the state which could, according to the classic definition provided by Max Weber, legitimise the use of power. Through its organs – in the shape of the police and army – the state enjoyed the exclusive right to control, suppress, exert and maintain security within and without (Elias 1997). Only if the state can show off it supreme and legitimate control within its territorial borders, Weber went as far as to say, could the state be worthy of its name (Weber, 120). External interference in the monopoly of the use of force, such as civil wars and organised criminal activity, would cast doubt on the viability of the state as enforcers of security. Crucially, Weber presupposed that “the exercise of violence can be ascribed to other groups and individuals only to the extent that the state itself permits it” (Weber, 131), a statement which further underscores the tight relationship between the state and its own security. By taking over this monopoly on security, then, the concern is that PMCs are mounting a challenge to the centrality of the state as sole and supreme arbiters of power. The very modus operandi, in other words,of the state appears to be threatened.

For all of Weber’s brilliance as a thinker, such a classic definition could only have emerged during nineteenth century Europe, for it was the nation-state which reigned supreme at the time; but ever since then advances in modern technology and the movement of both people and information have conspired to limit how much authority states are allowed to wield. Responding to situations when individual states cannot act separately to solve security issues that are international or transnational, Krasner has pointed to moves by the United Nations to intervene in cases of humanitarianism, which incidentally not only emboldens the power of collective states to exercise force in the sphere of international relations, but also serves to limit the powers of states which fall foul of certain international laws. As President Roosevelt put it as far back as 1904: ‘Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may … ultimately requite intervention by some civilized nations’ (Krasner 1999, 181).

While alarming, PMCs should therefore not be considered as complete replacements of the state. Compared to standing armies, which PMCs could not realistically or wholly replace, PMCs would only be entrusted on occasions where there is a demand for its services. They would be delegated select tasks which the state apparatus feels would be better performed when outsourced. Importantly, these firms merely temporarily receive a limited mandate to use violence which would otherwise revert back to the state once contract ends. Such an arrangement, however, can be a potential danger to security, and this is where the fault lines of debate lie. As the last sentences imply, private firms come to the business of war not to serve the national interest but the financial interest. Despite the example of certain companies working only for the US Army, and thus for the national interest, there is nothing that would stop them from serving other states if they thought they could maximize their own profit. To that extent, it is almost exclusively the market that drives them. Such a difference worries some observers because, if PMCs were to choose to work for a rival country, for instance China, they would take knowledge and expertise that had previously resided with the United States for example. Since it is the market that guides them, it is far from out of the question that this will not happen. If not now then it could occur in the future. The question for some is not if – but when.

More ominously, by contrast to standing armies, which receive regular supplies of weapons and training by the state, PMCs have as a rule their own cache of weapons that the state would not provide. Such a state of affairs have lead to legitimate concerns that they might fall into the wrong hands when companies are made bankrupt or when the PMCs themselves, having firmly established themselves as multi-national corporations with a global reach and ample resources, should chose to eat the hand that fed them. From a more operational point of view, the security dangers would be manifest on the ground. Employees of PMCs are not strictly-speaking soldiers who are organised hierarchically but are civilians who are only accountable for their actions through the contracts they have made with their clients. Communication problems between two culturally different entities on the field of combat could, it is feared, end up compromising security. Such worrying tendencies, described memorably by Kofi Annan as the “privatization of security”, if true, go to the heart of what the state is all about: its control over security (Holmqvist, 2005, 8).

2. Literature review

2.1. Popular representations of PMCs

Private military companies today are keen to highlight the supportive and positive impact they have on international security. That they should do so is no surprise as corporations want to impress potential clients. To state that they help undermine security would be tantamount to business suicide. Such a reason explains why they are often vigorous in their denial of any criticism that they are in any way “mercenaries”. Even though firms such as the London-based Armor Group, have names to suggest otherwise, they do stress nonetheless they are in the business of delivering aid rather than unleashing threats to international security. Like most PMCs, the Armor Group is a listed company, headquartered in London, and trade shares in the city’s Stock Exchange as a bona fide business venture. More concretely, as one correspondent reported, it distributed between 2003 and 2007 a staggering “31,100 vehicles, 451,000 weapons and 410 million rounds of ammunition to the new Iraqi security forces, and items as varied as computers, baby incubators, school desks and mattresses for every Iraqi government ministry” (The Washington Post, 2007). As a publicly traded company, fully licensed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Armor Group even took casualties, partly because it decided to refrain from using particularly powerful weaponry for fear of collateral damage. Why? “[It] did not want to be perceived as a mercenary force” (The Washington Post, 2007).

Such pains to present themselves as supporters of states in their bid to maintain security are often dismissed by commentators, fascinated in the phenomenon of PMCs, in favour of a narrative that spins secret plots and conspiracy theories that do little to contribute to the understanding of these companies as new and influential agents of international peace and security. In a recently published book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, journalist Jeremy Scahill, for example, entirely commits his analysis to doing just this. Pointing to PMCs as mere mercenaries, he goes as far as to state they would be the tool of choice for an adventurous American President’s covert power schemes. Drawing from otherwise correct premises about the end of the Cold War and the increased need for military know-how, Scahill however slowly strays from this promising start by underestimating the historical developments and the complicated changes which have occurred in the field of military services contracting. Ultimately, he ends up even ignoring the basic normative definition of “mercenary person” provided by Article 47 of the 1997 First Additional Protocol (FAP) to the Geneva Conventions. He also washes over numerous lawsuits initiated against Blackwater and other PMCs with reference to alleged safety violations leading to the death of several contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enlisting the agenda-ridden and highly selective accounts of unnamed US soldiers who were “envious”, he pours scorn on the attitude of overpaid “private soldiers [who] whiz by in better vehicles, with better armor, better weapons, wearing the corporate logo instead of the American flag”(The Nation, 28 May 2007). In a similar vein, Publishers Weekly chose to portray private military contractors as “heir[s] to a long and honourable tradition of contract soldier[s],” providing “relatively low-cost alternatives in high-budget environments” (Publishers Weekly Editorial Reviews, 10 April 2007).

Such portrayals of PMCs suggest contractors for these companies have an easy job. But this is far from the case. First, PMCs employees normally work in small teams which can neither count on close air support nor rely on artillery or mortar fire if backup were needed. The US government does not provide their ammunition, weapons systems or daily meals. Whatever they have or need to have (from their subsistence to the accomplishment of their mission) is privately shipped from the parent-country. Should anything happen, as it did in Fallujah, these personnel are on their own, and the odds during either a conventional fire fight or an ambush are far less in their favour. Second, one is not born a military contractor. Most of them have extensive military experience and/or law enforcement backgrounds, with years of training in special tactics and difficult environments. They worked hard to become the very marketable, final commodity that they represent today. It is not a “betrayal,” on their part, to honour their contract with the Armed Forces and then seek a more lucrative source of income. In addition, once these professionals have left their position (be it within the Armed Forces, a police department or other Federal or local government agency) all previous entitlements as far as life insurance (today in excess of $400,000), health benefits, family members coverage and combat zone tax exemption cease to exist. Although a one year-tour in the Middle East with Blackwater would earn a person with an experienced background between $80,000 and $110,000, this would not necessarily be an overriding incentive to go. Third, PMCs are a competitive work environment: good pay calls for knowledgeable, reliable individuals. The levels of professionalism are in general high, while open calls for concerted monitoring and a better regulatory system have further contributed to an effective screening of those applying for a position with all major military services providers (Burns, 2007).

2.2. Scholarly opinions of PMCs

Such an excursion must undermine the promiscuous notion that PMCs are die-hards whose sole intention is to con their way into subverting international security. More serious students of international security by contrast have been more cautious and keen to acknowledge the complexity that is involved in assessing the nature of PMCs. From a strictly realist point of view, which assumes the principle of states as rational unitary actors, with their own security at their forefront of their hierarchy of needs, the delegation of power to contractors smacks of surrendering sovereignty per se, and in this sense political scientists of this school of thought would conclude that PMCs have a negative impact on international security. Most obviously this standpoint manifests itself in examples where weak states, “convulsed by internal violence”, have failed to “deliver positive political goods to their population” (Rotberg, 2003, 1), which is the reason why they may have to resort to the services of PMCs. Conventionally-speaking this would mean PMCs would compromise security.

Yet the privatisation of defence and security, it has been argued, can actually play a positive role in countries which lack structures and technical expertise to achieve stability (Arnold, 1990, 170). By contrast to weak states’ traditional reliance on unpredictable warlords, it is pointed out, foreign military firms can, in fact, provide affordable and effective services to states on a low budget. Without the risk of further disrupting political and social equilibrium, PMCs would act as level-headed participants in conflict swayed less by emotional arguments than by the exclusive need to restore stability. Such an optimistic appraisal of PMCs is adopted by the foremost specialist on them, Peter Singer, who believes that weak states would benefit from their relationship with military companies. Responding to criticism that PMCs would be a drain on the host state’s resources, Singer claims that PMCs in this day and age do not need to secure a diamond mine or an oil field to underwrite their operations – as mercenaries of old had perhaps done. In most instances, a more lucrative market is provided anyway by international emergencies where coalitions of states, large NGOs or international institutions would be willing to pay handsome rewards for their services (Singer, 2002, 190). Such a sentiment is echoed by Jonas Hagmann and Moncef Kartas who remark that “the shift from government to governance, the trend away from state-centric provision for public services such as security and towards network- and private sector-centric provision, allows international organisations to play a role in the regulation of security governance (Hagmann & Kartas, 2007, 285-6). In this framework the calculated risk stemming from entrusting law enforcement activities to private contractors can have a positive outcome. International security is thus upheld.

On the opposite front, scholars such as William Reno (2002) have argued that the increasing resort to military contractors would bring about two different but equally negative consequences. First, private firms run the risk of being seen as enforcers of a new order represented by a resurgence of neo-colonialism. That the attackers in Fallujah, described at the beginning of this investigation, did not discriminate between contractors and regular soldiers is perhaps a case in point. Second, the presence and operation of private security firms, which are given the monopoly to exercise violence, would only add to the corruption of local ruling elites. Such a danger would of course apply more to lowly developed countries than highly developed ones, but, it is pointed out, regimes would be keen to utilise foreign professionals in the furtherance of their own agendas, where PMCs would contribute to the worsening of domestic political stability and territorial integrity (Reno, 2002, 70).

Such a gloomy assessment is also advanced by Paul Verkuil who warns that “reliance on the private military industry and the privatisation of public functions has left governments less able to govern effectively. When decisions that should have been taken by government officials are delegated (wholly or in part) to private contractors without appropriate oversight, the public interest is jeopardised” (Verkuil, 2007, 23). More and more government, Verkuil further observes, seem to favour recourse to outsiders, cashing in their own sovereignty as pawns in order to secure a solution to their more personal welfare. Similarly, Thomas Jäger and Gerhard Kümmel support the pessimistic view that sees the weakening of the state, especially in lowly developed countries. “The price for providing security for a beleaguered and cash-strapped government is exorbitant”, they announce, as those services cost “the contractual sum but also considerable parts of the state’s sovereignty” (Jäger and Kümmel, 2007, 120). Such pessimism has also been reflected in the work of Ronen Palan who bewails the commercialization of sovereignty. Pointing his finger at the expanding phenomenon of the offshore economy, which provides tax havens and financial facilities to large corporations and affluent individuals, Palan believes that a whole array of illegitimate activities are being staged today in those countries willing to give up on their security (Palan, 2003, 59).

2.3. Future development of PMCs

More ominously, scholars such as Thomson see dangerous portents for the future. Even though it would be possible to see the state delegating power, he accepts, in practice “increasing numbers of African rulers are opting today for alternatives to bureaucratic, territorially bounded institutional arrangements” (Thomson, 1995, 217-218), and are finding in private contractors a critical tool in the furtherance of such design. In support of this thesis, William Reno highlights the “fragmented sovereignty of Liberian and Sierra Leonean ‘warlord’ political units, and the associated enclave cities of Freetown and Monrovia.” To support their authority these new units have hired foreign contractors—foreign firms and mercenaries—to perform services formerly allotted to state bureaucracies. Closely recalling Rotberg’s definition, Reno points out how these new political units assume the ambiguous status of “non-state organizations,” profoundly divergent from the traditional norms of the bureaucratic state (Reno 1997, 493). Evidently, these non-states cannot produce societal advancement. They undermine economic development, lead to overlapping jurisdictions, promote conflicts among elites, and intentionally destroy bureaucracies” (Reno, 1997, 494), so as to allow the rulers to profit from the pervasive absence of government. Historically, mercenary groups have thrived in similar environments, but political ambiguity and ethnic-based conflicts are making the line between right and wrong almost impossible to draw between mercenaries and private contractors. More sophisticated, visible and publicly traded companies could, it is feared, one day be found working within these non-states, providing services that are legitimate per se, to far less legal entities. So far, no major private military or security contractor has lent its services to rogue states or actors not recognized by the international community – but it remains a distinct possibility.

From all this the implication is clear: does the emergence of PMCs present a real challenge to state security, even to the existence of the state itself? And what impact, if any, have PMCs had on international security? Do they help to undermine or bolster it? Such questions will be posed and answered in the course of this investigation. To do so it will be necessary to assess the extent to which PMCs present a challenge. First, the study will consider the theoretical arguments about sovereignty and security, placing discussion within the context of how the monopoly of violence came to be attached to the state. By doing so it should be possible to lay the foundations on which one can consider the extent of the threat posed by PMCs. Secondly, the study analyses the nature of PMCs themselves as a post-Cold War phenomenon. Taking care to differentiate between different types of organisations as well as discussing similarities ad divergences with armies, the investigation focuses on where PMCs should be situated, and considers the problem of where privatization begins and ends. Thirdly, the study looks more specifically at examples of PMCs in action from different parts of the world. All too often, theoretical discussion can be misleading. Dealing empirically with specific cases in the world’s hot spots in which PMCs have been deployed, it would be possible to ascertain the real effects of PMCs on the ground as well as on security in general. By incorporating all three elements – the theoretical/historical, analytical and empirical – it should be possible to reach in conclusion a more accurate understanding of PMCs and their real impact on international security.

3. History and theory of state sovereignty

3.1. State and security in historico-theoretical perspective

Before discussion can turn to the extent to which PMCs pose a threat to international security, it would be useful to consider the actor they are supposedly challenging: the state. More specifically, one should reflect on the foundations on which the state monopolises power, question how it developed to do so, and discuss the recent changes to the relationship between the state and security.

From a historical point of view, it would of course be possible to trace the existence of the state back as far as the ancient Greeks. Even so, it would be more common and appropriate to pinpoint the direct antecedents of the modern state to the Renaissance when Italy emerged having highly-organised city states. Most important characteristics of these fledging cities were their ability to possess standing armies, organise complicated bureaucracies and institute a rule of law to which the population would adhere. (Heller, 1934, 8). Such a process saw its completion during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when control, helped by improvements in communications, extended over vast regions, at times spanning the globe.

What was the key to this development was the amount of power the state could control. But for a long time power had been divided among different agents who would not necessarily obey the wishes of those in power. Even when Charlemagne, for instance, managed to conquer Europe during the medieval period, he could still not claim he was the most powerful man on the continent, since his Empire was ultimately subjected to recognition from Rome which could, in the figure of the Pope, refuse spiritual recognition. Power could also be left in the hands of the nobility, who for a long time kept peasants in perpetual servitude without the state being able to have a say in the kind of relationship that was forged between master and servant. Many city states, too, which boasted rich cultural and commercial pasts, could also resist the advances of larger states within their territory. Examples such as Florence, Venice, Hamburg and Bremen spring to mind as resistors of this trend, and it is hardly a coincidence that these proud cities for a long time evaded the dictates of administrative centres of Rome and Berlin, delaying the emergence of Italy and Germany respectively as modern nation states.

What was crucially important in the eventual emergence of the state was the ability to control the income of the people it subjugated – or more simply: taxes. At the outset taxes were levied as a temporary measure to fight wars but they were eventually made permanent following the One Hundred Year War, which raged between 1337 and 1453. Such a protracted war made it evident that a constant supply of finance to survive and triumph. Such a need in turn meant the creation of a more sophisticated bureaucracy that could effectively collect tax and use it for war. During the early modern period, the contributions of trade and commerce added further to a bulging budget, and the process of urbanisation which made this possible meant that central administrative organs as well as ruling monarchs would reside in towns and cities as a result.

More important for the purposes of this investigation was the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which established the principle of sovereignty. From this time onwards the state gradually established itself as the exclusive form of rule. Most memorably under King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, self-appointed monarchs consolidate the supremacy of the state over the Church, towns, people and economy to the extent that it could hardly be challenged. Even if the veracity of Louis’ famous quip – “L’etat, c’est moi!”- has been questioned, the statement succinctly conveys not only the self-righteousness of the King, but also the importance that was attached to the state itself. For without it the King could hardly cling onto power. Such moves naturally affected the nature of armies too. No longer would hired mercenaries do the job in prosecuting war – they had to be replaced by professional standing armies who would not, unlike mercenaries before them, switch sides depending on the way the wind was blowing. Much of the reason why PMCs are striking is because they seem to represent a throwback to a time when foreign nationals could join armies of other countries without this ever causing a stir or leading to doubt about their allegiance. Such a problem never really arose when absolute monarchs held sway. The crucial point was that soldiers should express their allegiance to the king or queen – to the individual head of the state – and that would be sufficient. But with the development of the nation-state, in which it was no longer necessarily to have monarchs for politics to function – circumstances changed so that citizens had to pledge allegiance to the state masquerading as the fatherland, to an abstract concept of the state no less.

Such disinterest in the kind of ruler the state embraces has been the hallmark to why the state has successfully remained the central force that it is still today. Concretely it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who first realised the full extent of the powers of the state as well as the willingness of people to be subjugated to it. In his classic book Leviathan, written in 1651, he described the natural condition in which there is neither state nor law. Only natural law – or ius naturalis – is present where everybody is free to do what they want. Such a state of affairs leads to all pursuing their own narrow interests, so that it quickly descends into a “war against all” in which everybody would need to live in constant fear of attacks on their own property, family and life. It is to avoid this situation that people come together to give up some of their freedom in return for guarantees of stability under a contract with Leviathan. Strikingly the Leviathan that Hobbes envisaged had almost unlimited power. Even though Hobbes conceded that citizens had the right of protest, he believed the state had the absolute right to control without which the existence of the state would be compromised.

3.2. Delegation of state competencies

Much of the reason why Hobbes invested in Leviathan such radicalism can be explained by the circumstances in which he found himself at the time he came to write his treatise. For it represented a time of the English Civil War, which raged between 1642 and 1649, during which time conflict took place between the King, Charles I and the Parliamentarians who challenged the right of the King to absolute power. Even though the Parliamentarians eventually triumphed, this did little to change the nature of the state, and the basic idea that under contract the state is given exclusive control over the use of violence, and thus the maintenance of security, is something that still lives on. For if the security of the people over whom the state rules is to be at


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