A few weeks ago, Biden made the announcement that all American and NATO troops were being pulled out of Afghanistan by September 11th. It was clear that 2,300 U.S. troops and around 7,500 NATO troops would exit, but what remained unclear was the role that private military contractors (PMCs) would play in a de-Americanized Afghanistan.
It is now known that all American PMCs will be leaving the country—all 17,000 of them. If that number sounds steep, then keep in mind that that only accounts for American PMCs. Although this was reported to some extent, it was a footnote within the larger story. But for a force that dwarfs coalition troops, this invisible army has been all but ignored in popular reporting. This is also in light of potentially billions of dollars in litigation against the U.S. government for cutting contracts short—contracts that would have otherwise gone into 2023.
Afghanistan is one indicator of the growing importance of PMCs in international conflicts. It’s not difficult to imagine why this might be: PMCs do not count towards the official military footprint of a state. They are, to all effects, invisible in everything except the power they exert.
The Trump administration lauded itself for pulling out troops from Afghanistan and brokering a deal where all forces were meant to leave by May 1st, but this obviously left gaps in the already overextended Afghan state. The solution was to fill these gaps with PMCs, which is why there are 17,000 of them there right now and why more PMCs have died in Afghanistan than American troops. But this doesn’t end in the Middle East nor the American government.
In early April, it was reported that Mozambique had terminated its contract with a South African military company that had been fighting the militant group, Al-Shabaab. One of the most prominent private companies is the Wagner Group. A PMC hailing from Russia, they’ve been operating since 2014 in places such as the Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Mozambique. It’s difficult to get information on these groups due to the propriety of business secrets, making this a particularly difficult area for academics to study and report on.
There are several concerns with the increasing usage of PMCs and the secrecy surrounding them.
The most apparent is the profit incentive. The organization of private military firms is incentivized by profit, and therefore, more conflict equates to larger bottom lines. Another concern is the legality of the entire matter.
Mercenaries are illegal according to international law. PMCs are legal because they’re organized under a corporate body. As one can imagine, this is mostly a semantic difference, only used in order to get around regulations. Russia is a good example in that PMCs are technically illegal while still being tolerated by the government. This allows the state to exert force without an official military footprint, while also not bearing responsibility for contractors’ actions. One doesn’t need to look any further than the 2007 Nisour Square incident in Baghdad, where Blackwater (a PMC now called Academi) massacred 17 civilians without provocation.
This situation exemplifies the murky waters that PMCs operate in. Both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have condemned using PMCs due to the concerns with their status in international humanitarian law (IHL). While countries have accountability measures, PMCs operate under corporate rather than state oversight. For example, a contractor cannot be court marshalled.
This raises further concerns with the distinction between civilian and combatant, especially when considering IHL.
Under IHL, combatants must: follow the rules of war, wear a recognizable uniform, carry their weapons openly, and operate under a clear command structure. PMCs are usually considered to be civilians, and civilians are meant to be protected in conflict zones. The argument is that PMCs only fight in self-defence and they don’t take an active part in the conflict. As one can imagine, this is problematic.
PMCs don’t necessarily fall under the classification of combatant based on the definition given in IHL. However, they are most certainly not civilians either—at least not in the legal sense. There are no lines of simple delineation: PMCs operate entirely in a grey area that’s ripe for misconduct without oversight. To a large extent, this explains the redefinitions that PMCs go through in order to satisfy legal loopholes. This has not gone entirely unnoticed in the international community.
One example is the 2008 Montreux document, which attempted to create a set of standards for PMCs to follow. This was largely a failure: not only was there no mechanism for enforcement, but it was also only signed by 49 countries. A greater initiative was the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) which sought to establish a set of rules and obligations for military contractors. Although this document was more successful in that it gained the support of over 700 companies, it also did not create any mechanisms for enforcement. PMCs can also be tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes, but only under specific circumstances. While there have been efforts to create more oversight, these efforts have been lacklustre. And it stands to reason that this has been on purpose.
As was discussed above, governments are also incentivized to keep forces outside of the “legal fold.” Not only can the military footprint be significantly slashed, but these contractors can also be used to exert force when a state is limited by international law. There is the further, and perhaps much more serious implication on perceptions of war. The use of PMCs instead of “official” troops effectively shields civilians back at home from the immediate effects of war. Jacobin Magazine comments that the rise of PMCs is one of the many reasons the antiwar movement today is weak. Contractors do not count towards the official military death toll, and casualties are reported through corporate means—that is, when insurance claims are filed.
Private Military Security Services Report 2019-2029 states that by 2029, the military service sector will be with $420 billion. This is not only a major threat to peace, but also to how war is perceived. The solution will not be found under the auspices of government since the state directly benefits from the murkiness. The growing trend of PMCs is an impetus not for finding peace, but rather continuing conflicts. And the covert nature of these conflicts will make them that much more difficult to detect and oppose.
The answer must be found in international civil society organizations that are removed from the structures of the state and the use of force. This issue will not go away by itself, and while it may be mediated by governments, it will never be completely reversed. The nature of war is set to change into something more covert and insidious, and the subversion of this trend must come from the grassroots. Civil society must become more sensitive to these issues to not only bolster anti-war sentiments, but also adapt its definitions of peace. The nature of conflicts is set to undergo changes. For peace to be viable and favourable, it must adapt as well.