Making A Killing
It seems as though everything today is privatized. Private prisons. Private healthcare. Even UNC’s student stores have succumbed; Barnes and Noble, a $2 billion behemoth, took over in 2016. War is no different. With the end of the Cold War came demilitarization, creating thousands of unemployed soldiers. Off-the-shelf technology, on the other hand, proliferated during that same period. Profit has replaced patriotism as mercenaries return to the forefront of warfare, with dire implications for global stability.
Uncle Sam is a leading proponent of private military companies (PMCs), an acronym for the mercenary companies dotting the world’s conflict zones. There are roughly 25,000 military contractors in Afghanistan at the moment, which eclipses the 15,000 American servicemembers fighting America’s now 17-year-long war. Over 6,000 contractors are in Iraq and Syria, providing extra presence where the Pentagon only admits to stationing 5,200 troops. This is not solely an American phenomenon: in 2017, 500 Russian mercenaries engaged American Green Berets in Syria, a deniable skirmish in a great-power face-off. While PMCs often conduct combat operations, most manage logistics, intelligence gathering, troop training, and anything else related to warfare. Their popularity is surging, too. At the end of the Cold War, there were 50 US soldiers for each contractor; in 2009, the ratio was one-to-one. Now, there are three contractors for each American soldier.
Since the Cold War’s end, PMCs have become multinational behemoths wielding more power than a small government. Take G4S, a firm that describes itself as “America’s most trusted security firm,” which “secures people, property and assets by understanding and mitigating security risk.” In 2017, it brought in over $9 billion in revenue. However, beneath the jargon, G4S operates private prisons around the world, offer security guards to the highest bidder, and have capabilities similar to a well-equipped army.
Many people know the infamous Blackwater (now Academi) from the Nisour Square Massacre, when company employees, mercenaries, killed 17 Iraqi civilians. But most are unaware of the larger DynCorp International, which obtains 96% of its $2 billion in annual revenues from the Pentagon and was connected to sex trafficking in Afghanistan and Bosnia. With enough cash, you can buy intelligence assets, special forces teams, and even a small air force, all without any transparency.
PMCs can quickly boost a nation’s military capabilities. Take Nigeria, which, in 2015, was fighting a bloody civil war against Boko Haram across a large chunk of its northeastern region. With an obsolete army riddled with corruption, Nigeria was losing village after village to the Islamist group. But, in March 2015, Nigeria hired South African mercenaries, who employed attack helicopters, night vision goggles, and armored vehicles and began to clear out most Boko Haram encampments. The Nigerian military declared victory by September.
The rise of PMCs poses the most underappreciated threat to global stability. Privatization almost always precedes proliferation. PMCs reduce the cost of war by letting governments shed foreigners’ blood for their cause and offer a veneer of deniability. For instance, President Obama’s campaign against ISIS had a “light footprint” of 4,647 troops; by not including the 4,970 contractors and countless subcontractors, Obama reduced the political cost for intervention abroad. This is how the United States has trained, equipped, and deployed peacekeepers to Burundi and Uganda. In 2007, the United States contracted DynCorp to rebuild the Liberian Army after a bloody civil war tainted the organization; ten years later, Liberia is sending peacekeepers to Mali, allowing Washington to buy nation-building on the cheap.
PMCs are incredibly easy to start. After a peace treaty turns soldiers into veterans, many will entrepreneurially band together and become soldiers of fortune. Often, ending one war creates armies ready to fight in another. PMCs are notoriously opaque; beholden to no government, they operate in the shadows, meaning they are difficult to study and are too often unprepared to follow international law. Over a third of interrogators employed by CACI International, which ran the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, “lacked formal military training.” As then-Senator Obama once remarked, “We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors.”
Africa, awash in unstable governments, intrastate wars, and foreign companies eager to protect their assets, is a new proving ground for PMCs. Wagner, a Russian firm operating in Syria and Ukraine, has now sold its services to the Central African Republic and Sudan, where it the company works to protect gold and diamond mines. This has given President Putin a hidden hand on the continent, allowing Russia to extend its foreign influence.
These unregulated, lethal, multinational firms pose a direct threat to global stability. The reason why lies 350 years in the past. The Thirty Years’ War claimed between 4 and 12 million lives, killing 20-60% of the population in some regions. It was a war of, for, and by mercenaries, who fought in nearly every European army and conducted ruthless reprisals on civilians. After the war, the belligerents signed the Peace of Westphalia, beginning an era dominated by the nation-state, an era which has lasted to this day. Sure, Great Britain hired Hessians to fight in the American Revolution and the East India Company was an 18th-century PMC, but by and large, nation-states dominated foreign affairs. This produced clarity, restrained state behavior, and helped keep armies beholden to international law. PMCs directly threaten this norm, and without the political will to reform them, these 21st-century corsairs will change international relations as we know it.