Blackwater and the Phenomenon of Private Military Companies
Recent hearings by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Blackwater have focused attention on private military companies or PMCs in Iraq. The House Committee's stated goal is to: "determine whether a State Department contract with Blackwater is undermining the overall U.S. mission in Iraq and whether the department has 'responded appropriately to shooting incidents' involving the security firm. The committee is also trying to gauge what U.S. taxpayers pay for Blackwater services."
But even the Washington Post stopped short of calling for the elimination of PMCs in Iraq altogether, suggesting that the "downsizing of the U.S. military has left the Army without enough people to perform many specialized tasks".
The use of private military companies long predates the US involvement in Iraq. Wikipedia notes that the "Center for Public Integrity reported that since 1994, the Defense Department entered into 3,601 contracts worth $300 billion with 12 U.S. based PMCs." Nor are US government agencies the only customers. According to the Atlantic, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sierra Sierra Leone and private corporations seeking hostage-negotiation or rescue services have been among the biggest customers. Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry puts the return to private providers of military services in historical perspective. "The Monopoly of the state over violence is the exception in world history, rather than the rule. The state itself is a rather new unit of governance, appearing only in the last four hundred years. Moreover, it drew from the private violence market to build it's public power."
Reflecting history, one state which still relies almost entirely on PMCs to provide security is the Vatican, which employs the mercenary Swiss Guards as its army. "Swiss Guards are Swiss mercenary soldiers who have served as bodyguards, ceremonial guards, and palace guards at foreign European courts from the late 15th century until the present day ... The Swiss Guard has served the popes since the 1500s as part of the papal army. Ceremonially, they shared duties in the Papal household with the Palatine Guard and Noble Guard, both of which were disbanded in 1970 under Paul VI. Today the Papal Swiss Guard have taken over the ceremonial roles of the former Vatican units, serving now as the army of the sovereign state of the Vatican."
But why do organizations like the State Department or the Vatican use "mercenaries" instead of regular soldiers to perform military or quasi-military duties? Part of the problem, at least for organizations like the Vatican, the State Department and many Third World countries, is that it is often much cheaper and more reliable to hire a mercenary force than to raise an army themselves. Creating a well-trained, disciplined force requires an infrastructure and tradition which is not always present in places like, for example, Afghanistan. Mercenary forces are used for the same reason that individuals rent cars instead of building their own automotive assembly plants. The economies of scale preclude building them from scratch. There has even been consideration to using PMCs instead of Third World Armies in peacekeeping missions. The advantages are not limited to lower cost. Well-trained mercenaries are often much more professional and respectful of civilians than a poorly trained rabble. Kent's Imperative correctly identifies the one factor that is often ignored in the recent coverage of abuses attributed to Blackwater and other PMCs: how many abuses there might be if they were not used. "In comparison the corrupt and ineffective third country national forces which typically make up the bulk of peacekeeping deployments, PMCs are provable more effective and – despite all of the IO activity aimed at discrediting their activities – far more respectable in most cases." The BBC for example, notes that using UN peacekeepers and similar forces is not without its downside. It reports that the UN itself has photographic and video evidence of "paedophilia, rape and prostitution" engaged in by UN peacekeepers in the Congo, among the several countries in which they have misbehaved. Abuses and violations are doubtless committed by private military contractors. The Earth Times reports that Blackwater "has sacked 122 employees during its years of guarding convoys and buildings in Iraq." But the question might be how many UN personnel or tribal militiamen might be sacked for offenses while performing a similar task.
Then there are also tasks for which the use of national military forces would be inappropriate. Guarding the private property of firms engaged in reconstruction or providing security details for foreign VIPs are examples which readily spring to mind. The White Rabbit at the Blackwater blog points out that PMCs actually have small-war capabilities which large military organizations don't have. Faced with the problem of cheaply delivering supplies to small outposts in Afghanistan, the US military turned to Blackwater Aviation, which had "small, light CASA C-212 cargo planes" capable of dropping supplies from 35 feet altitude with the aid of plastic parachutes -- costing $49 each -- developed for performing emergency relief operations. Blackwater Aviation was used to resupply paratroopers in some of the 22 bases scattered throughout the rugged country. The plastic chutes were so much cheaper than the standard ones that the procedure was to give them away to the locals. Small is sometimes beautiful.
The growing importance of PMCs and the problem of regulating their behavior were touched upon by Donald Rumsfeld during a speech at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
Karen Bateman: "There are currently thousands of private military contractors in Iraq and you were just speaking of rules of engagement in regards to Iraqi personnel and US personnel. Could you speak to, since the private contractors are operating outside the Uniform Code of Military Justice, could you speak to what law or rules of engagement do govern their behaviour and whether there has been any study showing that it is cost-effective to have them in Iraq rather than US military personnel. Thank you."
Donald Rumsfeld: "Thank you. It is clearly cost-effective to have contractors for a variety of things that military people need not do and that for whatever reason other civilian government people cannot be deployed to do. There are a lot of contractors. A growing number. They come from our country - but they come from all countries; and indeed sometimes the contracts are from our country, or another country, and they employ people from totally different countries; including Iraqis and people from neighbouring nations. And there are a lot of them and it's a growing number. And of course we've got to begin with the fact that, as you point out, they're not subject to the uniform code of military justice; we understand that. There are laws that govern the behaviour of Americans in that country - the Department of Justice oversees that. The [long hesitation] there is an issue that is current as to the extent to which they can or cannot carry weapons and that's an issue. It's also an issue of course with the Iraqis but, if you think about it, Iraq is a sovereign country, they have their laws and they're going to govern. The UN resolution and the Iraqi laws, as well as US procedures and laws, govern behaviour in that country depending on who the individual is and what he's doing, but I'm personally of the view that there are a lot of things that can be done on a short time basis by contractors that advantage the United States, and advantage other countries who also hire contractors. Any idea that we shouldn't have them I think would be unwise."
The importance of PMCs in a world where small wars against subnational organizations, often waged inside failed states is probably too well established to be challenged. Whatever happens to Blackwater, PMCs are not going away. But the recent activity and coverage of Blackwater in Iraq has aroused the regulatory instincts of Congress; and probably with justice. As the PMCs have grown in power, so has the need to get a handle on them. As the Washington Post editoralized:
More than 130,000 contractors serve the U.S. mission in Iraq, including some 30,000 security guards, and without them it would be impossible for U.S. forces to function. For some time to come, Blackwater or other security companies will be needed to protect senior U.S. diplomats and other personnel. The focus of the current reviews should be ensuring that they conform to the standards governing U.S. troops and can be held accountable when they commit excesses.
We can expect renewed efforts to regulate the PMCs. That effort -- like all other attempts at regulation -- is likely to be a two-edged sword. On the one hand laws are necessary to regulate the affairs of men. On the other hand, it is a truism that in Washington, everything is tainted by politics.