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Private Military Companies in Iraq : a Force for Good ?

Monday 7 February 2005, by Olsson Christian


Their names are Global Risk International, Dyncorp, Vinnel, Blackwater Security Consulting, or Erinys International to name but a few. It’s a secret to nobody: so-called private military companies (PMCs) operate extensively in Iraq, sometimes with highly sophisticated military means including helicopters and advanced computer systems allowing them to engage in direct combat as shown during the operations against the Army of Mahdi in May 2004 in the city of Nadjaf. The number of PMCs involved in Iraq, their often «mission critical» activities and the fact that they are operating alongside the forces of a multinational coalition, confer a specific salience to the issue today. The «services» they offer to the occupation forces include military activities (the protection of the provisional authority, the management of the weapon systems of drones, security consulting, intelligence gathering...), non-military functions (policing, logistics, catering...) as well as activities more difficult to categorize (training of the Iraqi security forces, the guarding of pipelines and of ministries...). In fact, through this massive intervention of military professionals with civilian status, it’s the very distinction between the military and the civilian that has become blurred. Indeed, the PMCs in Iraq are very often controlled by the Coalition Provisional Authority ( - the CPA was however dissolved in June 2004 - ) of Paul Bremer, and not by the military command.

Most analysts agree that more than 20 000 private «security contractors» are currently operating in Iraq. This rapidly increasing figure represents about 10% of the foreign military forces present in Iraq. Most of them are formerly British, American or South African soldiers. These figures reveal some disturbing facts concerning the composition of the coalition forces. The overall number of private military contractors is more important than the British troops, which officially represent the second biggest contingent in Iraq (about 10 000 troops). Only the South African «security consultants», who are nationals of a country that has firmly rejected the war against Iraq, are, with about 1500 troops according to the latest official data, more numerous than the Dutch contingent (about 1100 troops). In other words, official state-policies are not as decisive as they used to be in the recruitment of forces for international coalitions. This development offers a powerful insight into the reason for the massive involvement of PMCs in a war that from the beginning was internationally contested.

But the intervention of PMCs in Iraq also raises three more fundamental political issues concerning the use of commercialised means of coercion. The first issue is regulation. Many analysts seem to agree on the fact that PMCs have to be tightly regulated by governments in order to limit their potential for waywardness. But they frequently overlook the fact that this potential, and even the very existence of PMCs, is often inseparable from the interests and the professional networks of governmental bureacracies (security agencies, military services...). These companies, far from being the rivals of state forces, are an important asset for state-policies (and vice versa). PMCs are often tightly linked to political interests as shown for example by the relations between Kellog, Brown & Root, recently involved in a financial scandal in Iraq, and the US Republican Administration. This means that subordinating PMCs to governments through regulations will not suffice: it will only institutionalise ties that existed prior to regulation. For example, whereas the US is often cited as an example of tight control of PMCs though its licensing system, it is this precise system that allows for the Department of State and the Pentagon to circumvent Congress for contracts less than 50 million dollars, thus giving themselves substantial autonomy from democratic control in military affairs. Hence, the issue is far more how to maintain democratic control on governments resorting to PMCs, than how to create mechanism allowing for the discretionary control of PMCs by the governments themselves. As shown by the intervention in Iraq, such democratic control is very difficult to achieve...

The second issue concerns accountability. To whom are these firms accountable in the case of grave violations of international standards and norms? It is not clear at all how international law (that proscribes mercenary activities) applies to PMCs. Whereas public soldiers are submitted to judicial military codes and international law, the employees of PMCs are not. They operate in a judicial grey-zone. Hence when employees of Dyncorp got involved in a child prostitution scandal in Bosnia, they were merely fired but never prosecuted. This issue is currently brough up by the fact that a company, hiring so-called «debriefers», seems to be directly involved in the acts of torture committed in the prison of Abu Ghraib. It’s important to note that this judicial grey-zone is not only a side effect of the recourse to PMCs, it is part of their veryraison d’être: in many cases PMCs allow for governments to free themselves of the constraints imposed by international regulations. Indeed, they have been used to circumvent international arms embargos (Sierra Leone, Rwanda...) and international norms on the neutrality of peacekeeping forces. For example, the firm MPRI allowed the US government to help training and rearming the armed forces of the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia, in a context in which the engagement of US forces in peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina should have obliged the government to adopt a more neutral stance.

The third issue concerns their potentially destructive consequences. Can one really expect lucrative companies benefiting from the business of war to be efficient in the effective restoration of peace? The answer seems to be negative when considering that in many cases they are used by states to intervene in local conflicts without being suspected of interference or of acts of aggression. This was the case when the US government used the firm MPRI to support and train the Croatian Armed Forces after the collapse of Yugoslavia. This program led up to the lethal Operation Storm in 1995 that saw the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina region killing hundreds of civilians and leaving more than 170 000 homeless. This could never have been achieved directly by the US government without provoking a massive outcry in the international community. In many other instances PMCs have been used to pour small arms into war-torn societies, to train local militias and even to engage directly in combat, thus durably intensifying local conflicts.

From this perspective, the appearently seemless training of Iraqi police forces by Dyncorps and of Iraqi defence forces by Vinnel have also to be scrutinized. To train security forces is not only to prepare them to face an existing threat, it is also to a certain extent to «teach» them what ought to be considered a threat. In other words, it is not a matter of security-providers meeting a security-demand, but on the contrary a highly political matter. In a very conflictual and complicated political environment, it should be considered foolish to delegate such a function to private companies motivated primarily by profit and not by political considerations. In fact all of these three issues raise worrying questions as to the deep structural consequences that the current military policy in Iraq might have in the future...

May, 2004

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