The Rise of Private Military Companies (Part 2/2)

Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

The changing climate of warfare, growing instability and increased globalization have created a market for PMC services. [Read part one here.]

The role of private military companies (PMC) ranges from security to training to participating directly in combat as auxiliary troops. PMCs have been used all around the world for a variety of purposes and have been hired by multinationals, international organizations and national governments alike. The functions of PMCs fall into three broad types of activity: combat support, military support and security services.

First, combat support includes tactical military assistance, as well as combat services when needed. Companies like Executive Outcomes and Sandline Int. have been hired by national governments to help engage and defeat rebel forces in places such as Papua New GuineaSierra Leone and Angola.

Second, military support is the least contentious function of PMCs due to its passive secondary role. The use of PMCs serving in this capacity has grown dramatically with recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need for additional support in those areas. PMC support is vital to over-extended military personnel, as it allows them to concentrate on priorities while contracting out whatever other functions need fulfilling.

Private military support includes providing logistics, intelligence gathering, supplies procurement, transportation, strategic advice, training and a host of other miscellaneous tasks as necessary. Firms like DynCorp Int. and MPRI have both played supporting roles in the post-conflict Balkans, while AEGIS Defense Services provided support for the US operation in Iraq. The importance of the PMCs support role has proven to be critical at times and will continue to be utilized wherever necessary.

Third, security services is where a firm provides security to its client wherever needed. This type of firm has been used to protect individuals, government facilities, commercial operations and a multitude of other areas of interest. PMCs have been crucial in providing protection to multinational business interests abroad, nongovernmental organizations and aid workers operating in unstable regions. This is the type of activity that a national military is unable or incapable of carrying out, depending on the location. PMCs like Triple Canopy Inc. and Erinys International helped provide security in occupied Iraq, while the controversial firm Blackwater provided a security detail to Paul Bremer when he served as director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq.

The Role of PMCs

In addition to employment based on the need for these functions, three key events highlighted the increasing role PMCs could play in world affairs. The first of these was the United States’ ill-fated humanitarian mission in Somalia in the early 1990s. In late 1993, a small contingent of US soldiers was ambushed during an operation in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. What followed was the well-documented “Black Hawk Down” episode, where 18 Americans lost their lives and many more were wounded in an intense street-fight with Somali militiamen.

Most of the criticisms regarding human rights have stemmed from several high-visibility incidences of human rights violations by PMCs. One, well-documented episode was the gunning down of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007 by Blackwater employees after a convoy believed it had been fired upon. This tragic event and others like it have cast a dark shadow over PMCs.

In the immediate aftermath, the US government pulled its forces out of Somalia and allowed the country to continue its plunge into anarchy. This event was significant, as it showed that the US and, by association, its close allies had a low threshold for casualties. The events in Somalia also proved that in a post-Cold War world, Pax Americana was limited by national interests. Operations half-way around the world with no vital interests at stake were simply not in the domestic public’s interest.

Second, the fecklessness of America and its allies allowed PMCs to flourish where and when no one else was willing to act. This was only reiterated when in 1994 the US and others stood by and watched as 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in genocide. This episode showed the West’s fear of witnessing casualties again, as those suffered in Somalia a few years earlier, and long-term engagements.

But many scholars believe that PMCs could be a viable alternative to traditional humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. Action in such instances is surely far better than inaction, and PMCs offered a private sector solution to inaction.

The third event that stressed the growing role and visibility of PMCs were the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the start of the wars, in 2001 and 2003 respectively, PMCs have begun to play a much more instrumental role in the US-led war efforts. As the situations in both countries deteriorated, PMCs were brought in to help ease the burden of troops.

By 2005, it was estimated that 60 PMCs were employed in Iraq with over 20,000 personnel on the ground. At the height of these conflicts, contractors “accounted for 48 percent of the DOD [US Department of Defense] work force in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan,” according to the Congressional Research Service. These statistics alone show the increasing reliance of national governments on PMCs for a variety of capacities, from securing embassies to feeding troops abroad. Furthermore, domestically hiring PMCs is much less politically risky than sending in additional troops. The effectiveness of PMCs and the private sector in both theaters of conflict had a tremendous impact on the growth of the industry and its legitimacy.

Areas of Concern

The rise of the private military industry has not come without visible resistance. Over the years, multiple criticisms have been leveled against the industry, while skeptics continue to doubt both the viability and value of PMCs. Three major areas of concern are accountability, human rights and over-privatization.

First, the single most pressing issue facing the private military industry today is accountability. Proponents and critics of PMCs both tend to agree that the need for industry accountability is of the utmost importance. Ostensibly, PMCs are held accountable via contractual obligations and the rule of law in the region they are operating in. However, accountability is for the most part absent. Unlike their military counterparts who are subject to military law, contractors operate in a legal gray area. PMCs are usually given an enormous amount of flexibility and autonomy during operations, and as such they are usually out of the eyes of their liaison monitor.

Moreover, PMCs operating abroad are under the jurisdiction of the country they are operating in. However, PMCs tend to operate in places without any operable legal system. The lack of law and order may actually be the reason PMCs operate in the area in the first place. During the US occupation of Iraq, private contractors were exempt from local jurisdiction and were free to operate without fear of prosecution. This legal flexibility of PMCs has given rise to a number of concerns, while scandals involving several private contractors have underscored the desperate need for accountability. It is necessary both for PMCs to have a legal framework in which to operate and to ensure a high level of conduct by contractors operating abroad.

PMCs operate legitimate businesses. The majority of business they conduct is in the West and with Western governments. If a PMC took a contract with an international pariah, it would essentially be committing business suicide. 

Second, another major concern regarding the use of PMCs is the issue of human rights. Skeptics believe the use of PMCs is unethical and that PMCs are less likely to follow human rights norms. Most of the criticisms regarding human rights have stemmed from several high-visibility incidences of human rights violations by PMCs. One, well-documented episode was the gunning down of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007 by Blackwater employees after a convoy believed it had been fired upon. This tragic event and others like it have cast a dark shadow over PMCs.

However, human rights violations are simply not good for business. Today, public relations and corporate responsibility both play major roles in business activity. Companies in different industries strive to foster a good corporate image, and unnecessary human rights violations by private military contractors, no matter the scenario, are never flattering. Furthermore, reputable clientele such as Western governments or international institutions will desire to work with firms that have sterling records, as their own public image as an employer is at stake.

There are still fatal flaws in the system, as there are for any industry dealing with sensitive issues. For instance, drug companies are forced to account for the product they sell and ensure its safety, while banks are fined for improper banking practices. The same should be true for PMCs. Hopefully after some form of international legislation is put in place, human rights concerns related to PMCs will become a rarity.

Third, the increasing privatization of governmental functions has been accompanied by growing angst over the prominent role private companies play in society. One of the most controversial issues is the privatization of the military sector. Two major concerns include the lack of proper regulations and that private armies may end up working for unsavory employers. These concerns are not unfounded. However, other privatized industries such as domestic security and education have been successfully regulated. The same can be true of private militaries when controls are put in place to manage the use and actions of PMCs.

Furthermore, PMCs operate legitimate businesses. The majority of business they conduct is in the West and with Western governments. If a PMC took a contract with an international pariah, it would essentially be committing business suicide. Governments in the West would not stand for this, and the reputation of the PMC in question would be severely damaged. For these reasons, some PMCs have turned down contracts with rogue actors, while others have publicly stated their commitments to Western strategic interests. Ultimately, growing privatization has simply become part of the world today. After regulation is put in place, PMCs will be able to operate alongside other legitimate industries while causing less anxiety.

The Reality

For better or for worse, the use of PMCs has become a reality. As described in part one, the confluence of several factors in the wake of the Cold War led to the rise of PMCs. The list of functions that PMCs can play continues to grow, bolstered by today’s volatility and the increasing market for their services.

However, it is the hope of the international community that with the industry’s rise, PMCs will be used as an effective force for good in the world. Due to the nature of the work they carry out and the responsibility involved, PMC accountability is an absolute necessity. To ensure the proper employment of PMCs, their successful deployment and safeguards against potential profiteering, there needs to be regulation and contractual oversight, as there is for any vital industry. 

In the end, PMCs have become a reality in today’s world, and ultimately it will be up to all those involved to cooperate and come to an accord on establishing rules and regulations, by which PMCs can legitimately and effectively operate by.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Iurii / Shutterstock.com

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Leave a Reply