Private Military and Security Companies as instruments: case study of the Middle East

1. Executive Summary

  • Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) perform military security functions. When contracted for offensive operations they constitute as mercenaries. 
  • After the Cold War and certainly during the ‘War on Terror’ PMSCs became widely used in the Middle East. 
  • PMSCs are a flexible tool for governments that can be useful for both ad hoc tasks in war and long-term defence planning. It is vital to integrate PMSCs in the broader chain of command. 
  • Several states such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Russia use PMSCs and mercenaries as alternative forms of power application abroad through irregular means. 
  • PMSC use by the US and Russia has been on the rise in the Middle East in recent years.

2. What are PMSCs and what do they do?

Security contractors are a contested concept. A variety of names exist in the literature: mercenaries, peace and stability operators, Private Military Firms, PMCs, PSCs and PMSCs. After 2008 the academic literature generally settled on the term PMSC because in low-intensity conflicts the juxtaposition between security and military companies is difficult to sustain.

Mandel distinguishes PMSCs on two levels. On the one hand, they can differ in the goals they are to achieve: offensively changing or defensively maintaining the status quo. David Isenberg, author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq and long-time analyst of PMSCs: “Most private security contractors, the people that have the guns are not configured to be taking part in direct hostile action. That would mean that they were specifically seeking to engage with and have a firefight with people shooting at them. That’s not even allowed for their own defensive goals. It is not what they do. Their job is to secure facilities or guard high ranking people.” If contractors are hired for the offensive goals, they constitute as mercenaries under the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (art 47 of Protocol 1). On the other hand, there is a difference on who outsources the task: top-down by the government or bottom-up by individuals or firms. In the Middle East all forms of PMSCs operate. Hence, Kljeltstrup his definition is useful: “A corporate registered organisation which specialises in the provision of military functions which are inherently vital to the recipient’s successful management of military security.” The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 defined private security functions “as the guarding of personnel, facilities, or property, and any other activity for which contractors are required to be armed.” Such a definition does not include unarmed personnel providing services directly related to security, such as coordinating the movements of PMSCs throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, intelligence analysis, hostage negotiation and training. It has to be noted that some PMSCs unarmed services present the majority of their total revenue. This wiki focusses on their armed services.

3. What are the origins of PMSCs?

The use of private force is a constant throughout history. Modern states, however, built a de jure monopoly on violence. The use of mercenaries was a sign of a ‘failed state’. A fine example were the ad hoc mercenaries involved in the Congo Crisis. In 1965 the first corporation that functioned under Kljeltstrup’s definition was founded in Britain: WatchGuard International. Since the end of the Cold War the use of private force is more common. The end of the Cold War and apartheid in South Africa caused an exodus of experienced military personnel and combined with some low intensity conflicts it enabled the rising need for PSMCs to fulfil security functions. In the 1990s the mercenary firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline received major public attention for their limited but crucial offensive roles in civil wars. During the Global War on Terror (GWOT) the United States government, which already had experience with unarmed contractors since the Vietnam War, widely used PSMC services in Iraq and Afghanistan to augment their security needs. A boom in the security sector ensued.

4. What can PMSCs be used for?

“The Western PMSC industry is a heterogeneous and flexible industry and PMSCs are versatile instruments to Western governments”. They are useful for both ad hoc tasks in war and long-term defence planning. Their services were widely used as a force multiplier by the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. James Tolsona, former security contractor and author of ‘Cowboy days in Iraq’, sighs at the lack of a real PMSC-strategy: “The major problem is that PMCs are contracted for short-term goals that are then stretched out over multiple years. […] The real issue is expectations. If a client thinks about the desired outcome, what they want to happen to get there and seriously look at all the possible outcomes, it should all work out. Of course that won’t happen. The decision makers can’t be bothered with that stuff. That goes from Secretary of Defense down to the sergeant standing next to you. […] A PMC can fill in for [Western] government forces for some jobs. Anything beyond teaching, convoy protection, site security, and Personal Security Detail and you are expecting too much.” Several states such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Russia use them as alternative forms of power application abroad through irregular means, without violating international law or causing troubles in the domestic or public policy, or too many international repercussions. Isenberg: “The Russians A) have created a group [Wagner], which is doing combat and B) is far more tightly linked to the Russian government than Blackwater was ever linked to the US government and C) they are using it much more deliberately as a part of Russian campaigns for either direct military, political-military purposes or political- economic purposes, or perhaps we should say political geo-strategic purposes.”

5. How are PMSCs integrated into the broader strategy of the actor using it?

If PMSCs are well resourced and work under detailed and permanently monitored contracts, quality, skill and responsiveness can be ensured. The fourth element for military effectiveness is, however, integration. It “is the degree to which different military activities are internally consistent and mutually reinforcing”. As stated above PMSCs are used for short- and long-term tasks and, hence, integration in the bigger force is vital. ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal called private security contractors, however, “a challenge” because they were not integrated in the chain of command. Therefore, the chain of command has to have some amount of control on PMSCs in its theatre. A former Colonel with experience by EODTechnology said “Fights [between PSC personnel and the military] are less common than you would expect, but there is a structural problem – doctrine supported by training and simulations are lacking … much more needs to be done at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and within the Marine Corps”. The Handbook for Armed Private Security Contractors in Contingency Operation published in 2010 provided instructions for integrating security contractors in the force: “The JFC [Joint Forces Commander] must have visibility over all friendly forces operating in the operational area”. A variety of ways to make PMSC activity visible for the JFC exist. In the early phase of the contingency operations this was limited to ad hoc communication between local commanders and security contractors. For example, radios and telephone numbers were exchanged. Personal, possibly troublesome, relationships between military and private commanders were, however, vital In 2008 the DoD rolled out the Synchronized Pre-deployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) system. In addition, an armed contractors operations cell (A- CONOC) should be established to bridge the gap between the overall command and contractors. 

6. What are the opportunities and threats for the actor employing PMSCs?

Great opportunities and threats arise by using PMSC-services. One of the classic arguments for PMSC use is their supposed cost-effectiveness. Isenberg is sceptical of this claim: “The empirical and scholarly academic evidence butchers the claim that PMSCs are more cost-effective. Only in very specific circumstances it seems to apply. And even then there is the question of operational and strategic costs.” Saving costs on protection services seems to be questionable in a COIN situation. As already stated above, political costs for contingency operations are reduced: “Some governments also use PMSCs in an attempt to reduce the political costs and difficulties associated with military interventions. In most countries, including Germany, governments can hire PMSCs without involving the legislative branch or informing the general public. Executives can expand their political room for maneuver by using PMSCs instead of soldiers, whose deployment often has to be approved by national parliaments. In addition, casualties among PMSCs are not met with the same public outcry as are the deaths of soldiers – a major advantage in countries where populations are sceptical about interventions”. Tolsona is clear: “The real reason is that contractors are an entity that nobody cares about when they die. Thousands have died over the years and it hardly registers. Do that with uniformed soldiers and you get a lot of pushback from the voting public.” 

A major threat of outsourcing is the dependency on contractors by the actor. Isenberg: “The US can no longer go to war without contractors. They simply can’t do it. They don’t have enough resources in house anymore to do it all on their own.” In Afghanistan around 82% of the security contractors were from Afghanistan itself.  Afghan security firms have been involved in power struggles between influential clans or local militias and warlords, thus undermining efforts to establish democratic and accountable political structures at national and local levels. Furthermore, due to their almost unaccountable legal status, armed security contractors have been implicated in major crimes: violence against civilians and extrajudicial killings, extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, human trafficking, theft and looting.

7. Forecast of possible future developments and recommendations for EU decision-makers.

Since late 2015 PMSC use in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States Government is on the rise. The Department of Defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan increased from a mere 1700 contractors in the spring of 2015 to over 6000 in 2019. While still far from the 30000 contractors in late 2012 it can be expected that PMSCs are still a viable tool for the US and other governments to safeguard their presence.

Currently the market is still dominated by Western companies. Chinese and Russian ‘PMSCs’, closely linked to their governments or outright front organisations for an intelligence agency, are,  however, expanding their presence in the Middle East and Africa. This trend should raise concern in EU governments about potential security threats of Russian backed security contractors. A forecast about the future of PMSCs and mercenaries is, nevertheless, hard to predict, says Isenberg, as they are very versatile and connected to market demand: “The one thing that stands out time and time again is that market opportunities occurred that nobody predicted.”

While PSMC use by EU-member states is still uncommon, it is advised to legislate on the subject and to keep lobbying for a wide acceptance of The Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies during Armed Conflict. Meanwhile EU decision makers have to be aware that PMSC influence “have increasingly enabled the outsourcing to private security contractors of various migration control operations” and will try to have further impact on the EU’s common foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East.

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