‘Mercenaries’ are the preferred option – even for the US

The ‘war on terror’ has given rise to ‘remote control’ warfare where ‘lite’ warfare is viewed as a more effective counter-terrorism strategy than conventional forces. Increasingly private military and security companies have been commissioned with the responsibility for solving security problems in conflict areas.

Private military and security companies, known as PMSCs, are private businesses that provide services in conflict zones including interrogation, training troops, surveillance, and aviation logistics and maintenance. The industry alone is estimated to be worth over $100 billion a year, with around 20,000 personnel operating in Afghanistan alone. With the improvement of technology, as well as the absence of an ‘organised’ enemy army, force or state, a new type of warfare has emerged that has facilitated the rise of PMSCs.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were hugely unpopular with the public and meant that governments have, as result, been apprehensive and wary of deploying conventional forces, with the costs of these wars totalling a massive $4 trillion. The aversion to the deployment of conventional forces is such, that despite the destabilisation of the Middle East after the Arab Uprisings in 2011 and the subsequent presence of the so-called IS (Islamic State) in the Levant, the UK Parliament broke with the past and voted against military intervention in 2013.

In light of the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as the subsequent aversion to troop deployment, states are now turning to remote control warfare which offers a more flexible and cost-effective alternative to tackling security problems in conflict areas.

PMSCs are highly trained and have been successful in previous conflicts. For example Executive Outcomes (EO) contributed to securing the peace in Sierra Leone in 1995, where the UN had previously failed. Executive Outcomes successfully regained control of diamond fields and defeated the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). This victory facilitated the circumstances that allowed Sierra Leone to hold elections in March 1996.

Privatisation of war

Naturally the use of PMSCs has led to the ‘privatisation’ of war and has arguably seen the employment of what are effectively ‘mercenaries’, although those fighting for PMSCs strongly object to the use of the term. Nonetheless, they are in essence contracted out for money, and PMSCs can hold considerable power and influence, particularly in conflict areas where a government may be weak or even non-existent. In areas such as Afghanistan, PMSCs have been able to dominate the political structure, becoming a ‘parallel structure to the government’.

PMSCs train local forces and thus in countries where control of the army determines the level of power a leader holds, the role and influence PMSCs hold in these conflict areas cannot be understated. With the ability to mobilise troops no longer dominated by the state but by corporate entities, state sovereignty is significantly diminished, often creating significant tensions with the local government as in the case of Afghanistan.

Moreover, the lack of accountability and scrutiny over the operations of these ‘mercenaries’ has meant that abuses are often conducted with impunity, leading to festering resentment and an inadvertent fostering of terrorism. In Iraq, ‘contractors often shot with little discrimination…at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors’. In Afghanistan, the conduct of the PMSCs has been such that the government has actively campaigned to have the US remove private contractors from the conflict zones altogether over fears that they have exacerbated tensions and increased the threat of terrorism.

Regardless of the negative impact of PMSCs, states have demonstrated a growing willingness to employ these mercenaries more and more as they battle public opinion at home that prevent the deployment of conventional armies. There is no doubt that PMSCs are a cost-effective measure in approaching security issues. However, there are greater challenges in scrutinising their activities, particularly given the lack of public and media attention given to their activities. Moreover, the impunity and lack of accountability as a result of the nature of the relationship with the contracting state means that their impact in combating terrorism remains questionable.

Remote control warfare is an inevitable phenomenon in the modern era. However, greater accountability and transparency are crucial if private military and security companies are to effectively tackle security problems in modern conflicts.