The Rise of Private Military Companies

February 25, 2022
Louis Bernd  —  CEP Research Intern

The first two entries in this series, “ISIS ‘Down’ but ‘Not Out’ in Iraq” and “Justice Necessary Before Yazidis Can Find Peace,” addressed the scope and effects of military missions and transitional justice, respectively. This article expands on these issues by analyzing the growing privatization of warfare in Iraq and beyond.

Recently, the privatization of warfare has gained public attention because of the activities of the notorious Wagner Group, a Russia-affiliated organization known for its ruthlessness in Syria, Ukraine, and most recently, Mali. While the Wagner Group has been impactful, it is not the only group of its kind.  Mercenary activity has been on the rise for years, and the stereotype of mercenaries as cheap imitations of national soldiers is a grave oversight. Private Military Companies (PMCs) are often comprised of former highly skilled military personnel. They are often neither geographically nor ideologically bound. While PMCs can be powerful forces on the battlefield, their presence can also be highly problematic.

Commercially organized mercenary involvement in international conflicts gained worldwide attention in 2007 when four Blackwater contractors opened fire on Nisour Square in Baghdad, Iraq. Seventeen unarmed civilians and several Iraqi police officers were killed in what became known as the Nisour Square massacre. This incident started a debate about PMCs' accountability and reliability, which continues today. While Blackwater, now named Academi, faced a backlash and scrutiny, the privatization of force has not slowed. The market for force has become global and is growing rapidly. Major mercenary activities on all sides of conflicts have been reported in Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. Furthermore, PMCs have diversified, with some being linked to states, such as Wagner, and others operating similar to global businesses and loose recruiting networks—devoid of all allegiances and affiliations.

Private force has several benefits for those who employ them. For one, it is far cheaper to rent a heavily armed, battle-hardened mercenary group for a few weeks than it is to maintain a comparable standing army. For example, the Nigerian military apparatus fought Boko Haram for years, but solicited the services of several PMCs to bolster its capability to secure the country’s elections in 2015. A further benefit is that mercenaries who die in battle do not potentially impact national politics like fallen soldiers. Indeed, killed mercenaries often go unnoticed and unreported. Additionally, PMCs can be hard to trace, granting the employing state or organization plausible deniability. A prime example is the Wagner Group. While the Kremlin denies ties to Wagner, investigative journalists’ reports reveal how closely the two are interlinked. Wagner mercenaries train at Russian bases, are flown on Russian military planes, and are airlifted to Russian hospitals if necessary. Indeed, the Wagner Group seems to act primarily as a Russian proxy, granting President Putin a degree of plausible deniability.

PMCs are not only employed by states, but also by companies, NGOs, and individuals. A typical example involves mining operations guarded by mercenaries employed by a multinational corporation. Thus, the battlefields of today can be confusing and unpredictable. Private force can be used against extremist groups as well as for their benefit. Thus far, the United Nations has abstained from employing PMCs for peacekeeping missions, but with  challenges in recruiting sufficiently qualified peacekeeping forces and a tight funding environment, PMCs may be one stop-gap option.

However, private force often comes with complications. PMCs thrive in the chaos they help create, since conflicts mean business. Thus, they have little commercial incentive to contribute to ending conflicts and are rarely employed to do so. Furthermore, their operational tactics and methods are not regulated, which has led to past excesses. Numerous reports on severe human rights abuses by PMCs strongly indicate the lack of established best practices and the virtual impunity with which many operate. This is not to say that national militaries are incapable of committing war crimes, but the potential for accountability of private contractors is far lower.  

The use of PMCs is now an established practice in conflict zones and the market for these private forces is growing rapidly, despite the risks, especially in countries already struggling with weak governance. Rather than enhancing security, the unregulated deployment of PMCs can be detrimental to long-term stabilization operations. Without international rules, the real risk exists that the most detrimental aspects of PMCs are likely to continue to proliferate, especially in complex conflict zones. Unfortunately, thus far international law is lacking enforcement power. Even if perpetrators of PMC-related crimes are brought to court, complicated jurisdictional and legal questions make legal accountability far from assured.  Germany has recently made potential progress in this regard by prosecuting an Iraqi ISIS fighter under universal jurisdiction. However, while universal jurisdiction can be used for the most severe crimes, such as genocide, which was at the center of the case in Germany, it is difficult to apply this standard to other crimes.

As their use proliferates, the role, purpose, use, and operations of PMCs deserve far greater public, political, and legal scrutiny. Governments should work toward building a stronger international regulatory framework, including sufficient enforcement powers, to prevent abuses by these heavily armed forces for hire.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

In Their Own Words:

Without doubt, the secularists are evil and more malicious than the polytheists and secularism is farther astray from the path and more malicious than polytheism. The secularists who are associated with Islam even [merely] by identity are considered apostates by a group of scholars. The Jews, Christians, those who worship graves, and many polytheists and unbelievers have committed lesser acts of unbelief than the secularists.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Salafist propagandist Mar. 1, 2021
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