PMC Mercenaries: Outsourcing War (And Terrorism)
(Jan. 19, 2010) In The Prince, Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote:
"The mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if anyone supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure, as they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, faithless, bold amongst friends, cowardly amongst enemies, they have no fear of God, and keep no faith with men."
In an August 11, 2009 Global Research article titled, "The Real Grand Chessboard and the Profiteers of War," Peter Dale Scott called Private Military Contractors (PMCs) businesses "authorized to commit violence in the name of their employers....predatory bandits (transformed into) uncontrollable subordinates representing public power in...remote places."
True enough. Those performing security functions are paramilitaries, hired guns, unprincipled, in it for the money, and might easily switch sides if offered more.
Though technically accountable under international and domestic laws where they're assigned, they, in fact, are unregulated, unchecked, free from criminal or civil accountability, and are licensed to kill and get away with it.
Political and institutional expediency affords them immunity and impunity to pretty much do as they please and be handsomely paid for it.
So wherever they're deployed, they're menacing and feared with good reason even though many of their member firms belong to associations like the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) and the British Association of Private and Security Companies (BAPSC). Their conduct codes are mere voluntary guidelines that at worst subject violators to expulsion.
When IPOA wanted Blackwater USA investigated (later Blackwater Worldwide, now Xe - pronounced Zee) for slaughtering 28 Iraqis in Al-Nisour Square in central Baghdad and wounding dozens more on September 16, 2007, the company left the association and set up its own, the Global Peace and Security Operations Institute (GPSOI), with no conduct code besides saying:
"Blackwater desires a safer world though practical application of ideas that create solution making a genuine difference to those in need (by) solving the seemingly impossible problems that threaten global peace and stability."
Blackwater, now Xe, makes them far worse as unchecked hired guns. Wherever deployed, they operate as they wish, take full advantage, and stay unaccountable for their worst crimes, the types that would subject ordinary people to the severest punishments.
In his book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," Jeremy Scahill described a:
"shadowy mercenary company (employing) some of the most feared professional killers in the world (accustomed) to operating without worry or legal consequences....largely off the congressional radar. (It has) remarkable power and protection within the US war apparatus" to practice violence with impunity, including cold-blooded murder of non-combatant civilians.
Employing Mercenaries - A Longstanding Practice
Called various names, including mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, dogs of war, and Condottieri for wealthy city states in Renaissance Italy, employing them goes back centuries.
In 13th century BC Egypt, Rameses II used thousands of them in battle. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used them. So did Alexander the Great, feudal lords in the Middle Ages, popes since 1506, Napoleon, and George Washington against the British in America's war of independence even though by the early 18th century western states enacted laws prohibiting their citizens from bearing arms for other nations. Although the practice continued sporadically, until more recently, private armies fell out of favor.
Defining a Mercenary
Article 47 in the 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions provides the most widely, though not universally, accepted definition, based on six criteria, all of which must be met.
"A mercenary is any person who:
(a) is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
(b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities:
(c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of the Party;
(d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
(e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
(f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces."
This Article's Focus and Some Background
This article covers the modern era of their resurgence, specifically America's use of private military contractors (PMCs) during the post-Cold War period.
However, the roots of today's practice began in 1941 in the UK under Captain David Stirling's Special Air Service (SAS), hired to fight the Nazis in small hard-hitting groups. In 1967, he then founded the 20th century's first private military company, WatchGuard International.
Others followed, especially during the 1980s Reagan-Thatcher era when privatizing government services began in earnest. As vice-president, GHW Bush applied it to intelligence, and then defense secretary Dick Cheney hired Brown and Root Services (now KBR, Inc., a former Halliburton subsidiary) to devise how to integrate privatecompanies effectively into warfare.
The Current Proliferation of PMCs
According to PW Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry:"
Included are companies offering "the functions of warfare....spanning a wide range of activities. They perform everything from tactical combat to consulting (to) mundane logistics....The result is that (the industry) now offers every function that was once limited to state militaries."
Warfare, in part, has been privatized so that "any actor in the global system can access these skills and functions simply by writing a check."
In the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon employed one PMC operative per 50 troops. For the 1999 Yugoslavia conflict, it was one for every 10, and by the 2003 Iraq War, PMCs comprised the second largest force after the US military.
They've also been used in numerous civil wars globally in nations like Angola, Sierra Leone, the Balkans throughout the 1990s, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere. From 1990 - 2000, they participated in 80 conflicts, compared to 15 from 1950 - 1989.
Singer cites three reasons why, combined into "one dynamic:"
1. Supply and demand
Since the Cold War ended in 1991, the US military downsized to about two-thirds its former size, a process Dick Cheney, as defense secretary, called BRAC - Base Realignment and Closure, followed by privatizing military functions. But given America's permanent war agenda, the Pentagon needed help, especially because of the proliferation of small arms, over 550 million globally or about one for every 12 human beings, and their increased use in local conflicts.
2. Changes in the conduct of war
Earlier distinctions between soldiers and civilians are breaking down, the result of low-intensity conflicts against drug cartels, warlords and persons or groups aggressor nations call "terrorists," the same ones they call "freedom fighters" when on their side for imperial purposes.
High-intensity warfare also changed, so sailors aboard guided missile ships, for example, serve along side weapons and technology company personal, needed for their specialized expertise.
In addition, the combination of powerful weapons and sophisticated information technology let the Pentagon topple Saddam with one-fourth the number of forces for the Gulf War. This strategy can be just as effective in other conventional warfare theaters, depending on how formidable the adversary, but it doesn't work in guerrilla wars - the dilemma America faces in Afghanistan, earlier in Iraq and still now as violence there is increasing.
3. The "privatization revolution"
Singer calls it a "change in mentality, a change in political thinking, (a) new ideology that" whatever governments can do, business can do better so let it. The transformation is pervasive in public services, including more spent on private police than actual ones in America. And the phenomenon is global. In China, for example, the privatesecurity industry is one of its fastest growing.
By privatizing the military, America pierced the last frontier to let private mercenaries serve in place of conventional forces. Singer defines three types ofcompanies:
1. "Military provider firms"
Whatever their functions, they're used tactically as combatants with weapons performing services formerly done exclusively by conventional or special forces.
2. Military consulting companies
They train and advise, much the way management consulting firms operate for business. They also provide personal security and bodyguard services.
3. Military support firms
They perform non-lethal services. They're "supply-chain management firms....tak(ing) care of the back-end, (including) logistics and technology assistance...." They also supply intelligence and analysis, ordnance disposal, weapons maintenance and other non-combat functions.
Overall, the industry is huge and growing, grossing over $100 billion annually worldwide, operating in over 50 countries. By far, the Pentagon is their biggest client, and in the decade leading up to the Iraq War, it contracted with over 3,000 PMCs, and now many more spending increasingly larger amounts.
A single company, Halliburton and its divisions grossed between $13 - $16 billion from the Iraq War, an amount 2.5 times America's cost for the entire Gulf War. The company profits handsomely because of America's commitment to privatized militarization. More about it below.
Since 2003, Iraq alone represents the "single largest commitment of US military forces in a generation (and) by far the largest marketplace for the private military industry ever."
In 2005, 80 PMCs operated there with over 20,000 personnel. Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it's grown exponentially, according to US Department of Defense figures - nearly 250,000 as of Q 3, 2009, mostly in Iraq but rising in Afghanistan to support more troops.
Not included are PMCs working for the State Department, 16 US intelligence agencies, Homeland Security, other branches and foreign governments, commercial businesses, and individuals, so the true total is much higher. In addition, as Iraq troops are drawn down, PMCs will replace them, and in Afghanistan, they already exceed America's military force.
According to a September 21, 2009 Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, as of June 2009, PMCs in Afghanistan numbered 73,968, and a later year end 2009 US Central Command figure is over 104,000 and rising. The expense is enormous and growing with CRS reporting that supporting each soldier costs $1 million annually, in large part because of rampant waste, fraud and abuse, unmonitored and unchecked.
With America heading for 100,000 troops on the ground and more likely coming, $100 billion will be spent annually supporting them, then more billions as new forces arrive, and the Iraq amount is even greater - much, or perhaps most, from supplemental funding for both theaters on top of America's largest ever military budget at a time the country has no enemies except for ones it makes by invading and occupying other countries and waging global proxy wars.
Efforts to do so have been fruitless despite the General Assembly trying in 1989 through the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. It took over a decade to get the required 22 signatories, but neither
America or other major PMC users were included.
An earlier effort also failed when in 1987 a special UN rapporteur was established to examine "the use of mercenaries as a means of impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination." It was largely ignored, and a 2005 effort won't likely fare better under a working group for the same purpose. Nor will industry associations functioning more for show than a commitment to end bad practices that will always go on as long as rogue firms like Xe and others like it are employed.
Singer noted how PMCs have been involved in some of the most controversial aspects of war - from over-billing to ritual slaughter of unarmed civilians. Yet none of them have ever been prosecuted, convicted or imprisoned, an issue Singer cites in listing five "dilemmas:"
1. Contractual ones - hiring PMCs for their skills, to save money, or do jobs nations prefer to avoid. Yet unaccountability injects a "worrisome layer of uncertainty" into military operations, opening the door to unchecked abuses.
2. PMCs constitute an unregulated global business operating for profit, not peace and security when skilled killers are hired - former Green Berets, Delta Force soldiers, Navy Seals, and foreign ones like the British SAS.
3. Conducting public policy as serious as war through private means is worrisome, including covert operations to avoid official oversight and legislative constraints.
4. Moving private companies into the military sphere creates disturbing gray areas. PMCs can't be court martialed, and international law doesn't cover them. Further, operating in war zones makes them even less accountable as who can prove their actions weren't in self-defense, even against unarmed civilians.
5. Increasing PMC use also "raises some deep questions about the military itself." How do you retain the most talented combat troops when they can sell their skills for far greater pay? Also consider the uniqueness of the military.
"It is the only profession that has its own court system, its own laws; the only profession that has its own grocery stores and separate bases;" its own pensions and other benefits for those staying around long enough to qualify. So what happens when it's transformed into a business with profit the prime motive? Simple - more wars, greater profits. The same idea as privatizing prisons - more prisoners, fatter bottom line.
Another consideration is also worrisome. Given America's imperial ambitions, global dominance, permanent war agenda, and virtual disregard for the law, public distrust is growing for politicians who never earned it in the first place.
Given the Pentagon's transformation since 1991, the number of services it privatized, and America's permanent war agenda, what will conditions be in another decade or a few years? How much more prominent will PMCs be? How much more insecurity will result? How soon will it be before hordes of them are deployed throughout America as enforcers in civilian communities outside of conflict zones, with as much unaccountability here as abroad? What will the nation be like if it happens?
In his book, "Halliburton's Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War," Pratap Chatterjee describes a company tainted by bribes, kickbacks, inefficiency, corruption and fraud, exploitation of workers as near-slaves, and other serious offenses, yet operates with impunity and sticks taxpayers with many billions of dollars in charges.
Before spun off in 2007, KBR won the bulk of Iraq contracts as part of Halliburton, many of them no-bid. Earlier from 2002 to March 2003, it was involved with the Pentagon in planning the war and its role once it ended - the one co-founder George Brown claimed Lyndon Johnson described in the 1960s as a "joint venture (in which) I'm going to take care of politics and you're going to take care of the business side of it." Fast forward, and nothing's changed.
In a February 19, 2009 article, titled "Inheriting Halliburton's Army," Chatterjee writes how their employees are in "every nook and cranny of US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan," yet stateside operations yield additional billions in revenue. He describes their "shoddy electrical work, unchlorinated shower water, overcharges for trucks sitting idle in the desert, deaths of KRB (its former subsidiary) employees and affiliated soldiers in Iraq, alleged million-dollar bribes accepted by KBR managers, and billions of dollars in missing receipts, among the slew of other complaints" that got wide publicity since the beginning of the Iraq war.
He explains that since it got a 2001 contract to supply US forces in combat theaters, KBR grossed over $25 billion. It then got new contracts under Obama, leading Chatterjee to ask: "How did the US military become this dependent on one giant company?"
Tracing its history since the 1960s, he noted its connection to Lyndon Johnson, its profiteering from the Vietnam War, again under Ronald Reagan, then more under GHW Bush and Dick Cheney, his defense secretary who accelerated the Pentagon's privatization agenda, then headed the company as CEO. Bill Clinton continued it, hiring KBR in 1994 to build bases in Bosnia, later Kosovo, and run their daily operations.
Then under Bush/Cheney, outsourcing accelerated further, so today there's one KBR worker for every three US soldiers in Iraq. They build base infrastructure and maintain them by handling all their duties - feeding soldiers, doing their laundry, performing maintenance, and virtually all other non-combat functions.
Despite its abusive practices, KBR is such an integral part of the Pentagon that Chatterjee asks "could Obama dismiss (its) army, even if he wanted to?" Not at all so expect KRB's $150 billion 10-year LOGCAP contract (the Army's Logistics Augmentation Program - beginning September 20, 2008) to continue, and KBR's army to remain on the march reaping billions from the public treasury as the nation's largest PMC war profiteer.
PMCs Under Obama
In February 2007, Senator Obama introduced the Transparency and Accountability in Military Security Contracting Act as an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, requiring federal agencies to report to Congress on the numbers of security contractors employed, killed, wounded, and disciplinary actions taken against them. Referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee, it never passed.
Then in February 2009 as president, Obama introduced reforms to reduce PMC spending and shift outsourced work back to government. He also promised to improve the quality of acquisition workers - government employees involved in supervising and auditing billions of dollars spent monthly on contracts. Even so, PMCs are fully integrated into national security and other government functions, as evidenced by the massive numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.
Earlier, PMCs were at times used in lieu of US forces. As mentioned above, they helped General Washington win America's war of independence. Later the war of 1812, and in WW II the Flying Tigers fought the Japanese for China's Chiang Kai-Shek. In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were prominent nation builders in South Vietnam. From 1947 through 1976, the CIA's Southern Air Transport performed paramilitary services, including delivering weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In 1985, the Army's LOGCAP was a precursor for more extensive civilian contractor use in wartime and for other purposes. It's involved in pre-planned logistics and engineering or construction contracts, including vehicle maintenance, warehousing, base building abroad, and a range of non-combat functions on them.
The Clinton administration's "Reinventing Government" initiative promised to downsize it by shifting functions to contractors as a way cut costs and improve efficiency. Later under George Bush, private companies got to compete for 450,000 government jobs, and in 2001, the Pentagon's contracted workforce exceeded civilian DOD employees for the first time.
In 2002, under Army Secretary Thomas White, the military planned to increase its long-term reliance on contracted workers, a plan known as the "Third Wave" after two earlier ones. Its purposes were to free up military manpower for the global war on terror, get non-core products and services from private sources so Army leaders could focus on their core competencies, and support Bush's Management Agenda.
In April 2003, the initiative stalled when White resigned, among other reasons for a lack of basic information required to effectively manage a growing PMC force, then estimated to be between 124,000 - 605,000 workers. Today, more precise figures are known and for what functions, but a lack of transparency and oversight makes it impossible for the public, Congress, the administration, or others in government to assess them with regard to cost, effectiveness, their services, whether government or business should perform them, and their effect on the nation for good or ill, with strong evidence of the latter.
The 2008 Montreux Document is an agreement obligating signatories with regard to their PMCs in war zones. Seventeen nations ratified it, including America, Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and China, pledging to promote responsible PMC conduct in armed conflicts. Divided in two sections, its first one covers international laws binding on private contractors, explains states can't circumvent their obligations by using them, requires they take appropriate measures to prevent violations, address them responsibly when they do, and take effective steps to prevent future occurrences.
The second section lists 70 practices for helping countries fulfill their legal obligations, including not using PMCs for activities requiring force, implementing effective control, using surveillance and sanctions in case of breaches, and regulating and licensing contracted companies, that in turn, must train their personnel to observe the rules of law.
Given the obvious conflicts of interest, self-regulation won't work. Unchecked, combatant PMCs are accountable only to themselves, operating secretly outside the law - for the Pentagon as an imperial tool.
Given Obama's permanent war agenda and how entrenched PMCs have become, expect little constructive change, save for tinkering around the edges and regular rhetorical promises, followed by new fronts in the war on terror and even greater numbers civilians and soldiers for them.
Then add hundreds more billions diverted from vital homeland needs to enrich thousands of war profiteers, addicted to sure-fire blood money, and expecting plenty more ahead. They'll get it unless enough public outrage demands an end to this madness before it's too late to matter.
Some Final Comments
On January 13 (on antiwar.com), Jeremy Scahill reported that Representative Jan Schakowsky (D. IL and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence member):
"is preparing to introduce legislation (Stop Outsourcing Security Act - SOS) aimed at ending the US government's relationship with Blackwater and other armed contracting companies."
Originally introduced in 2007 but not passed, Schakowsky says:
"The legislation would prohibit the use of private contractors for military, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and armed rescue functions unless the President tells Congress why the military is unable to perform those functions. It would also increase transparency over any remaining security contracts by increasing reporting requirements and giving Congress access to details about large contracts."
Meanwhile on January 12, 2010, a coalition of groups opposed to Blackwater called on Congress to investigate why criminal charges against the company were dismissed on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. They also want to "pull the funding on war profiteers like Blackwater (and) stop them for good."
It's a tall order given how entrenched they are and expanding. In Haiti, for example, reports say Blackwater is there providing security, an indication perhaps of more contingents to follow, from them and other armed contractors, "authorized to commit violence in the name of their employers."
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at