Army For Sale: The Rise And Rise Of Private Military Companies


The face of modern warfare is ever changing. While fewer conflicts are fought between national governments, war in some form rages across much of the world: from a proxy war in Yemen, to the anarchic strife in the Central African Republic, to the civil war in Syria. These conflicts are often between governmental forces and armed non-state groups, such as the war on terror led by the United States in Afghanistan – or among the non-governmental groups themselves. It is not just the shift from the international to the civil that characterizes modern war, but also the increasing involvement of private military companies (PMCs). War is big business, after all.

These are organizations which offer protection and security services to individuals or businesses and, more frequently, act as sub-contractors of governments in the same way that a government might outsource its catering. Supposedly, the work of these companies is supportive and defensive, providing logistical solutions and security details, as well as offering consultancy and training to local forces. But the activity of PMCs is not limited to defence and security; rather, it seems to lead more and more toward offensive military operations. British charity War on Want reports that it is an industry worth anything from $100bn-$400bn, and which saw particular growth after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Understandably, it is difficult to ascertain the value of the industry and the exact extent and nature of PMC services, as these companies do not belong to regulatory bodies or have national oversight. It is for this reason that a PMC can be contracted in the first place.

Of these military corporations, Blackwater is the name that first jumps out, especially for those who have suffered at the hands of the U.S. based firm. In 2007, employees of Blackwater International – founded by former American navy SEAL Erik Prince – opened fire on civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, killing 17 and injuring 20 more. As one might expect of the activities of a self-regulated, non-governmental army, the exact details are hard to obtain. However, it appears that the massacre was instigated by trigger-happy Blackwater employees, and not by a genuine outside threat. The incident is referred to as the ‘Nisour Massacre’, and is, for the people of Afghanistan, emblematic of the mistreatment and abuses suffered at the hands of both U.S. and British personnel, and of their contracted counterparts. Prince quickly sold Blackwater International after Nisour, and its name became so toxic that it was changed first to Xe Services and later to Academi, as it is now known.

Erik Prince and the PMC phenomenon have resurfaced in the news of late, though not in the mainstream. Most recently, Prince’s new Hong Kong based security firm, Frontier Services Group (FSG), announced that it was opening training centres in Xinjiang, western China, an ethnically divided region in which the Chinese government has detained upward of one million Muslims and rolled out widespread policies of cultural, religious, and ethnic repression. It is a worrying development in the activities of PMCs if they are to align themselves with national governments who commit such flagrant infringements on human rights. FSG has since removed the announcement from their website and Prince has distanced himself and the company from any “training” activities in Xinjiang.

This is not the only hot water in which Prince has found himself. His suggestion to completely privatise the U.S. war in Afghanistan – where contractors already outnumber US military servicemen – has been broadly rejected as nonsense, even by other private military contractors. In Politico magazine, ex-soldier Sean McFate, former private military contractor and author of New Rules of War, critiqued Prince’s plan for Afghanistan and added that: “when anyone can rent a military, then super-rich and large corporations can become a new kind of superpower. Worse, mercenaries can start and elongate conflicts for profit, breeding endless war. A world with more mercenaries means a world with more war, which is why Prince’s proposal is so dangerous.”

There it is, the unspoken label hanging over all of this: mercenary, someone who is paid to wage war. McFate has said that the distinction between mercenary and PMC is minimal, and that it really comes down to who the client is. Mercenaries are hired by rebels and terrorists; PMCs, with their sanitized vocabulary and euphemisms, are for nation-states. Nominally, mercenaries have been made illegal in international law, in line with the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries, an accord which has only 35 ratified members. Of those, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federation are not signatories – hardly surprising when one considers that their militaries rely on services from the private sector. The UK in particular is a hub of these firms, with British company G4S recently revealed (in the War or Want report) as the largest security and private military organization in the world.

Private military corporations seem to offer good value for money. They also give a contractor plausible deniability, as in the case of the Nisour Square Massacre: it was, after all, Blackwater employees and not US troops who were responsible for the violent events. The use of PMCs also enables the side-stepping of democratic institutions; a government can “withdraw” its troops while still retaining sub-contractors in a war zone, in order to further their own national interests. Contractors often act as proxies for the intervention of one country in the internal affairs of another.

From the perspective of peace and justice, the ongoing rise of PMCs is an awful development. Not only do these corporations have little oversight but, as war is so lucrative for them, there is a danger that companies will prolong contracts, and therefore human suffering, in order to rack up a larger bill for their client, whomever that may be. There is the question of jurisdiction, too. Where can PMCs be held accountable? If a contractor is working on a U.S. contract in Afghanistan but is him/herself a Third Country National (TCN) from the Philippines, where would that individual be prosecuted for a potential war crime?

PMCs can also be harmful to their own employees. Contractors from the U.K. and the U.S. rank highest in the hierarchy, but PMCs rely on cheap labour from the global south in the same way that many industries do. They look for battle-hardened, experienced soldiers – whether SAS, Navy SEALs, or former insurgents and child soldiers. These TCNs are usually paid far less than their Anglo-American counterparts. In some cases, individuals have been so mistreated by PMCs that they have tried to flee employment. India, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Philippines have all raised complaints around the abuses faced by their citizens as employees of PMCs.

War should not be a business. Financial motivation for the continuation of war means that displacement, suffering, human rights abuses, and war crimes will be prolonged for the sake of profit, as is the case in Afghanistan. The war began in 2001, nearly 18 years ago, and is still a business opportunity for the likes of Erik Prince. There is no evidence that PMCs are more efficient than national militaries, just because they are private ventures. In fact, given that the data on their efficacy is so limited – due to the covert nature of the industry – it is impossible to determine whether they work at all; if we look solely to Afghanistan as an example, it would seem that they do not.

David N Rose