The United States uses Private Military Contractors (sometimes called Private Security Contractors) in both armed and unarmed functions in combat zones, most notably during the war in Iraq. The armed functions include security for convoys, buildings, and individual personnel as needed. Unarmed functions include intelligence analysis, communications coordination, and security training provided to the Iraqi security forces.
Report for Congress on PMCs in Iraq: http://tinyurl.com/al9v7a3
The PMCs have never been intended to replace combat troops in Iraq, instead they are meant to augment security operations so that the armed forces stationed in Iraq can perform combat roles instead of dividing manpower and resources between security and operations. The combat realities of Iraq do not fit this ideal. Security forces have been forced to engage attackers in contexts similar to those of active duty troops. The enemy forces do not distinguish between contractors and soldiers and will attack all American installations and personnel. Security contractors increasingly found themselves in the same situations as combat troops.
Najaf 2004: Blackwater Security defending a building compound
Ramadi 2011: United States Marines in shootout with Iraqi Insurgents
No Place at Home
Most PMCs hire contractors in a three tier system: Tier 1 is made up of former special forces and other highly trained soldiers from elite units. Tier 2 is made up of logistics supporters, many of whom do not carry guns. Tier 3 are usually local hires in the country of operation or third-country nationals, who are neither citizens of the United States or the country in which they are operating. None of these tiers contain active duty soldiers.
When PMC contractors make $500 to $1500 per day it is easy to understand why someone would go to work for a PMC, even if it is in an active and hostile warzone. Military pay is a minute fraction of what these men are making, but that is not the only reason why they join PMCs. Many soldiers who have reached some of the highest levels of skill and training come home to find that without a college degree they cannot make more than minimum wage doing mainly service jobs. PMCs offer these men the chance to support their families and use the skills they have learned over a lifetime. There is rarely any niche for special forces soldiers stateside.
How to become a mercenary: tinyurl.com/dx65sga
The United States Military, as a part of the US government, has mechanisms to prosecute and punish soldiers when they act outside of their command or commit any crimes during combat operations. PMCs, on the other hand, have been shown to have relatively little, if any, oversight on their actions. Most of this impunity stems from Paul Bremmer’s Order 17 (full text: tinyurl.com/4a32h) which places PMCs firmly outside the sphere of Iraqi law. This means that PMCs cannot be prosecuted for breaking any Iraqi law and cannot be brought to court in Iraq. PMCs were still under US authority, but even the United States government has proven reluctant to prosecute PMCs.
CBS News – Blackwater Cleared in Baghdad Shooting: tinyurl.com/cy38xel
PMCs do have internal accountability structures, formed to promote legitimacy and trust in the deployment and use of PMCs in place of regular troops. The International Peace Operations Association is the umbrella under which PMCs have come together to find accountability solutions, and along with leading lawyers and human rights specialists have come up with the IPOA Code of Conduct (full text: tinyurl.com/bkaw567 ). The Code, however, remains largely toothless as it does not possess any real methods for accountability or enforcement. PMCs possess no internal structures for justice and prosecution and without any willingness by the government to prosecute there remains little real accountability for the contractors working in Iraq.
When Things Go Wrong
Former Vice President Dick Cheney is a big proponent of Private Military Contractors. He believes that private entrepreneurship will step in and expedite processes that would otherwise be bogged down by military bureaucracy. Big money and poor oversight, however, create new and sometimes dangerous challenges.
Security contractors have won contracts without having any personnel on hand, believing that once they have received the contract money they will be able to adequately fulfill the needs of the contract. In many cases this has led to a shortage of capable personnel, especially local hires, who have been known to take the offer of employment and then not show up to do the work. With profit, and not country, as the bottom line, sometimes the correct equipment, including armored vehicles, weapons, radios, and other essential and potentially life-saving equipment is unavailable to those who need it most.
The most devastating instance in which the PMCs failed to provide adequate support to their personnel occurred in Fallujah, Iraq on March 31, 2004. A convoy of Blackwater employees, traveling in unarmored cars and without an adequate route through the most dangerous city in Iraq, was ambushed and four Blackwater employees killed. It was 3 years before it was fully understood just what had gone wrong in Fallujah, and just how badly prepared the Blackwater men had been by their own company.
ABC News: Blackwater Bridge Video: tinyurl.com/bzj2k8d
US House Oversight Committee Report on Fallujah 2004: tinyurl.com/al2vjdr
Future of Mercenaries
Mercenaries as PMCs are here to stay. They free up valuable soldiers and provide top-level security. The incidents involving unlawful conduct are as numerous in the regular armed forces as they are in the private sector. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current security climate in many other countries has created a need for security while depleting the number of American armed personnel to do that work. Contractors work well as security because they have experience in the field, they have already been trained to a high level and are able and capable of deployment. The benefits seem to outweigh the risks, but the risks are still great. In the future, as now, private soldiers will be working alongside the military to provide security.
IPOA Code of Conduct review (Amnesty International): tinyurl.com/afd4b24
Council on Foreign Relations Op-Ed – Accept the Blackwater Mercenaries: tinyurl.com/bgoxyat
Op-Ed – Iraq’s mercenaries with a license to kill: tinyurl.com/beq7zkr
Council on Foreign Relations Online Debate with Representatives of IPOA and Amnesty International: tinyurl.com/axmffuv
Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton: Overview of mercenary activities from the beginning to 2006 and day-to-day experiences of mercenaries in Iraq
Blackwater:The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill: In-depth look at the activities of Blackwater contractors.