As President Barack Obama’s time in the White House draws to a close, critics and supporters alike are trying to condense his often disjointed foreign policy manoeuvres into a coherent doctrine. A major facet of this Obama doctrine – perhaps more fundamental than his use of drones, his reservations about leaning on long-established alliances, and his ‘pivot’ away from the Middle East and to Asia – has been a much-touted disdain for hawkish intervention and consequently, his own ‘light footprint’ in the soils of conflict.
As part of this policy, effective from 2011, Obama has committed to pulling back troops from conflict zones, primarily Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter, for example, the US has instituted a rollback to 9,800 troops from 99,000 in June 2011, exactly five years ago, with plans to cut boots on the ground to 5,500 in early 2017.
What these statistics fail to illustrate, however, is the sharp rise in private military company (PMC) personnel contracted by the US to fight or provide other military support functions in conflict zones, a move that has been key to facilitating troop recall without compromising on-ground objectives. As Foreign Policy noted last month, there are about three times as many contractors as US troops in Afghanistan, clocking in at 28,626. In Iraq today, 7,773 contractors supplement a US military contingent of 4,087. And these numbers don’t even include any contractors hired by the CIA or its sister intelligence agencies.
Once flourishing businesses in the ancient and medieval worlds, and integral to the security strategies of everyone from country lords to kings (and sometimes even the papacy), private military services began to steadily peter out as the world transitioned to the Westphalian state system, with standing public armies. As modern nation-states arose or crystallised, especially from the 18th century onwards, each state needed a monopoly on violence and the legitimate use of force – an imperative that operates even today – and so state militarisation grew rapidly and mercenarism receded into the shadows, notwithstanding the occasional Hollywood outing. But the end of the Cold War – which left in its wake an abundance of unemployed but trained military personnel and thousands of soldiers without a war to fight – opened the door to the emergence of independent, private, military enterprises.
Since the last decade of the 20th century, the world has become well-acquainted with PMCs, or privately held corporate firms that commodify and sell direct combat (mercenary), training, or logistical services; it is not only the United States that has witnessed and participated in their resurgence. They gained traction after the UN peacekeeping failures in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s and the success of Executive Outcomes, a PMC, in Angola and Sierra Leone.
PMCs as peacekeeping forces
In the past year alone, the United Arab Emirates hired hundreds of Latin American mercenaries – mainly Colombian – to fight the Iran-backed Houthis in the proxy war in Yemen, and Nigeria employed STTEP International, a company of South African mercenaries, which has fought and contained Boko Haram to moderate success, something the Nigerian military had been unable to do for years. It’s no surprise that countries are gravitating towards PMCs; they act as force multipliers at a fraction of the economic and political cost of conventional armed forces. Nations get additional troops – usually, since the market is so exclusive, with above-average expertise and specialisation – without having to spend on training and recruitment, and labor laws often ensure that they can get away with providing abysmal disability compensation and death benefits, such as in the US. More significant is the political benefit the use of PMCs can provide. In cases where the country is not directly threatened – such as in every contemporary instance of US aggression – it can pursue objectives without facing a domestic backlash over the loss of citizens in combat.
This is especially true when the mission is of an ostensibly humanitarian purpose. Fulfilling perceived moral responsibilities to besieged people of the world with minimal loss of domestic life infuses the country with a one-two jolt of national pride and faith in the competence of its leadership. The fact that contractors sign up voluntarily for the mission at hand, as opposed to soldiers who must go where they are assigned once they join the military, makes their deployment or death an easier pill to swallow, and policymakers are saved from losing political clout at home.
In light of all this, why are PMCs not regularly used for peacekeeping functions? Private contractors are the best – and often the only – option in especially dangerous situations where countries are unwilling to send their own troops but where action must be taken to save lives. Furthermore, contractors who hail from or around the conflict zone have an invaluable knowledge of its geography, key players, and customs, which can reduce dependence on local militias with political agendas and often deep-rooted ethnic and religious rivalries of their own, and end the disastrously myopic tactic of choosing the lesser regional evil.
Despite these apparent benefits, there has been a decisive push against the normalisation of PMC use; in 1998, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously declared that “the world may not be ready to privatise peace”, which seems to ring true in most diplomatic and academic circles today.
Critics have plenty of reason to be sceptical about using PMCs. Contractors such as DynCorp have been notorious for often flouting international law, allegedly illegally purchasing weapons, trafficking women as sex slaves, raping, pillaging, and even murdering civilians. In 2014, a US jury convicted four employees of Blackwater, another PMC, for the 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nasour Square. However, while there is no question PMCs are hugely potent loose cannons, held in check only by the gossamer leash of self-regulation (which has proven inadequate), they are here to stay. The market – now estimated to be somewhere between $100 billion and $400 billion a year – is growing; it’s not only states that are looking to hire them.
Sean McFate, associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington and a former DynCorp employee, writes, “If money can buy firepower, then large corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals could become a new kind of superpower. New mercenaries will emerge to meet this demand, offering more lethal services unhindered by laws of war.” Already, warlords in Afghanistan and Somalia are creating contracting firms that keep local fighters on payroll.
Regulating the genie
The only thing that can be done to make PMCs ethically useable forces is the institution of binding external regulation. They must be subject to proper surveillance– as any public armed force would be– and international law.
While treaty laws do prohibit some forms of mercenary behaviour, there are currently no international rules against the use of non-mercenary (non-combat) PMCs – only an international norm that is increasingly wearing thin while problems of accountability persist.
Given the diverse composition of contracting firms, the processes for holding them accountable for either kind of activity are fragmented at best, and so contractors are largely ungoverned. Nations such as the US have laws that seek to hold contractors accountable for war crimes or human rights violations, but these cases are complicated by the jurisdictional issue of nationality, and the ability of a particular state to prosecute and punish citizens of another. In its most basic form, PMC regulation should resolve this issue by ensuring that the country in which the company is registered has the power to charge and try employees, even if they are non-citizens. Of course, the historical unwillingness of many states to relinquish control of the fate of their citizens may cause many to view this endeavour as an utopian one, which is entirely possible. But with the private military service industry already– and unfortunately– at a point of no return, efforts to curb its destructive potential must push forward with vehemence even in the face of cavalier dismissal.
Apart from an international regulatory treaty signed by a majority of the worlds nations, which many states will not be party to because it could curtail both operational use and plausible deniability on their part, there are three regulatory options that should – and could – be adopted. First, PMCs could be re-conceptualised as institutionalised agencies – or at least, partially so– in the country in which they are registered, bringing them under the stringent purview of international institutional law. Second, behavioural conditions and stipulations should be included in contracts signed with the PMCs, with clearly outlined monetary or legal repercussions if they fail to adhere to these stipulations. Third, basic market restrictions should be imposed; if a PMC takes on clients with non-peacekeeping or humanitarian aims, the company entity should be charged under the law of the country in which it’s domiciled, and subsequently disbanded.
PMCs vs. UN peacekeeping forces
After regulation, PMCs would effectively be the same as public or legitimised coalition armies such as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (UNPKF), which have also committed atrocities and, at least in theory, have faced appropriate legal consequences. And so, there is no reason for PMCs to be excluded from the business, so to speak, of peacekeeping. In fact, PMCs may well come to partially replace UN peacekeepers, definitely not because they are some form of panacea for an ailing world, but because they are more efficient than the UNPKF.
A 2006 Oxford Development Studies paper illustrates how the overall costs of a late-90s Executive Outcomes mission in Sierra Leone, launched after a failed UN peacekeeping one, were far less than the UN’s, with the former receiving $25 million in addition to diamond and bauxite mining concessions, and the latter costing a whopping $1.283 billion. Despite the fact that EO managed to get the job done in about a third of the time that UNPKFs were on the ground – the second major facet of its efficiency – costs per month for EO and UNPKF ($1.19 million and $19.4 million respectively), show that the PMC was far more cost effective. Case in point: currently, the UNPKF budget for a single fiscal year amounts to $8.27 billion. PMCs also deploy faster, and so eliminate any wastage of time that a sluggish bureaucracy might create. According to a 2011 study, EO started its missions in both Angola and Sierra Leone just a month after signing the contract, whereas the UNPKF took between three months and a year.
Consequences for India and the world
India and Pakistan are two of the largest current contributors to UN peacekeeping operations, with India being historically the largest, contributing 180,000 soldiers since its inception. As of August 2014, India had 8,108 personnel serving on the force, behind only Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are fiscal reasons for India’s contribution: UN peacekeepers receive compensation of $1,332 per month, but their countries decide their wages, and so the surplus is taken to line the treasury or augment military budgets. Soldiers can also be taken off the government’s payroll while serving in the UN, which allows India to keep almost 10,000 troops standing with no cost incurred. India also gets the additional benefits of its troops being trained in ways that local assignments would not afford them, and they are exposed to conflict-management strategies that can be applied back home.
More importantly at the global scale, however, India secures significant diplomatic perks as a direct result of its UNPKF contributions. In India’s mushrooming quest to become a global superpower, peacekeeping efforts boost its international image; sending troops to fight the good war lends the lustre of samaritan-esque involvement and a sense of macro-responsibility to a country that largely stays out of dominant international discourse on conflicts and interventions. To be sure, it’s a subtle advantage established only after decades of proven commitment, but in international affairs perception is half the game.
Building on this perception of credibility and clout, peacekeeping missions have served as conduits for New Delhi to establish economic and diplomatic ties with developing African nations. “This seems particularly important to India,” wrote defence analyst David Axe in The Diplomat, “at least as far as Congo is concerned.” Congo has an abundance of mineral resources, a large proportion of which are traded with China for infrastructural investment, and then refined and sold by the Chinese to other nations. The presence of Indian troops from 2003 in Congo helped New Delhi break into its mineral market and by 2008, says Axe: “Kinshasa and New Delhi were discussing greatly strengthened economic ties. In January of that year, Congo agreed to partner with India in the mining of copper, cobalt and industrial diamonds.” The then-Congolese foreign minister acknowledged the catalyst for the partnership when he praised Indian peacekeeping forces at an economic meet, saying that they had “not only engaged in peacekeeping but also carried out significant humanitarian work for the Congolese.”
If the importance of national-patchwork UNPKF troops were reduced in favour of PMCs, India would stand to lose all or most of these strategic advantages, a loss that would not be offset by revenue from taxing PMCs, as none exist in India.
The wider use of PMCs as peacekeeping forces would prove detrimental not only for independent nations that don’t have any, but also for the international system at large. It will, without a doubt, damage the hard-won multilateralism of the present international system, accepted and practiced mostly because countries need co-operation on resources to accomplish large-scale objectives, be they humanitarian or military. Economic support is solicited to fund armies and coalitions are formed to fight enemies – there is perhaps no major modern conflict that does not use a coalition force – and all of this betters alliances and state-to-state relations on a wide range of topics, primarily economic. PMCs will rob states of this opportunity entirely, and an increased reliance on themselves and the private sector will isolate nations from globalised processes.
Unless explicitly and legally made humanitarian tools to the exclusion of all else, with clear and strict guidelines of what constitutes humanitarian action, PMCs will continue to be used as aggressive forces under interventionist pretexts. Multilateralism will also not be able to act as a check on violence; as PMCs make it easier to engage enemies, aggression around the world will increase. Security foresight and prognosis – especially for smaller, evenly matched states – will be nearly impossible, because PMCs are wildcards that can be contracted by any side, and so keep the balance of power in an unprecedented state of flux.
There is also the danger that PMCs will become instruments of neo-colonialism. Most major PMCs are concentrated in and contracted by the western world, mainly the US and the UK, affording them even greater power to interfere in the affairs of less developed countries with impunity. This is just one of the many ethical issues that the use of PMCs creates; however, market forces have created PMCs and for better or for worse, there is no stuffing this genie back in the bottle. Private military contractors are not going anywhere. It’s now up to the international community to regulate them so the consequences of their use are less sinister and more controllable.
Tanya Rohatgi is a student of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) and International Relations at Ashoka University and an intern at The Wire.