The US is expanding military operations overseas without actually increasing the number of regular troops deployed there. The military spends great sums to hire private intelligence contractors to do the fighting.
The Department of Defense has for the first time indicated that it was hiring private military contractors (PMC) for operations in Syria.
The nature of the US mission in Syria is highly sensitive; little information is available in open sources. According to a Daily Beast report, military contractors would be working inside Syria alongside the roughly 300 US troops (Special Forces – SOF) already deployed there.
In Iraq the number of contractors working for the Defense Department had just about doubled from 1,300 to 2,500 since last summer. The number is not capped. Most of them are working in security, transportation, construction, communication support, training, management and administrative roles. Nearly 70 percent of the contractors are American citizens, 20 percent are third-country nationals and the remaining are local Iraqis. The number of contractors, who are closer to the battlefield than the military advisors, is classified.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has recently stated that there will be a growing demand for private contractors in Iraq and Syria after Islamic State is pushed out of large urban areas.
It’s «going to be a big job», the Secretary noted. Obviously, the US military is deepening its involvement in the fate of the country.
The game-changing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made the notion plausible. They marked the first time that the United States contracted out so much of its fighting, with private employees outnumbering uniformed personnel in theater at times in both campaigns. While formally the number of US troops overseas has been reduced during the President Obama’s tenure, the ratio of contractors to troops in war zones has increased from 1:1 to about 3:1.
These numbers do not include contractors supporting the CIA or other intelligence community activities, either abroad or in the United States.
The administration is bequeathing a way of war that relies on large numbers of guns-for-hire. Private military contractors perform missions that have been traditionally carried out by regular military, such as forming and training foreign armies, conducting intelligence collection and analysis, as well as combat actions. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those involved in performing combat and combat related tasks constituted about 15 percent of all contractors.
Seventy-five percent of US forces in Afghanistan are contracted with about 10 percent involved in combat missions.
A squad of Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians at a Bagdad traffic circle in 2007 to provoke a scandal – one of the most shameful pages in the history of wars waged by the United States.
This story illustrates how the obfuscation between private and public actors allows for the responsibility of criminal actions to be placed on the private firm, while allowing the state to achieve its foreign policy goals.
The news about the contract signed with military contractors is important for analysis of the situation in Syria. Not counted as troops deployed overseas, contractors encourage mission creep. On-demand military services make it easier and more tempting to go to war in the first place. The administration does not have to report the numbers to Congress, which does not consider private contractors to be regular forces. Their numbers in war zones are not tracked. As a result, there are more people doing actual fighting in other countries than common Americans are aware of. With the mission creep encouraged, the contractors’ activities are virtually invisible and uncontrolled. They weaken the national state power and its monopoly on violence. It is often difficult to tell national troops from private security contractors, or national support personnel from supply and support contractors. PMC serve as alternative forms of power application abroad through irregular means and avoiding international repercussions. There is no public accountability. The use of PMC allows to avoid public outcry at home – the real number of contractor deaths is always unknown. Their deaths rarely attract headlines. They shield themselves from inquiry by invoking the need to protect proprietary information and are not subject to Freedom of Information Act.
Most of those fighting for the United States abroad aren’t even Americans. Around 33 percent of private military contractors in Afghanistan are US citizens.
Private military companies are multinational corporations that recruit globally. Moreover, the role, scope, and size of military contractors are never mentioned when there is a new announcement of a US troop deployment to Iraq or Syria.
There is a visible trend here. The United States has become dependent on the private sector to wage war to make it strategically vulnerable. The use of contractors in Syria confirms the fact that the US can no longer conduct operations without the private sector. The US combat forces would be impotent without them. No international laws exist to regulate the mercenary industry. The hiring of mercenaries is a common practice in the history of armed conflict and prohibited in the modern age by the United Nations Mercenary Convention, which the United States is not a signatory to. America has rejected the UN’s classification of PMCs as mercenaries.
With the contracts expired, the multi-billion-dollar industry is seeking new clientele. Consequently, the market for force is expanding, finding new supply and demand. Recently, mercenaries have appeared in many combat zones in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine hired by the Ukrainian government. The US’s heavy reliance on military contractors both increased their numbers and also de facto legitimized their use. Now other countries and consumers are following the US lead, globalizing the industry. Mercenaries are incentivized to start and expand war for profit. Out of work private soldiers may become a destabilizing factor to spark and sustain conflicts and undermine stability. More professional mercenaries looking for money means more conflicts – this is one of the lessons learnt from the European Middle Ages. They change the ways wars are fought and the world order functions. Non-state actors – anyone who has the means, like ultra-wealthy people and multinational corporations – may wage wars of their own.
The US let the genie out of the bottle to create a threat to global security. It is responsible for what it has done.
The news about the US plans to hire PMCs to accomplish certain missions in Syria comes at the time when Russia and the United States are engaged in talks on establishing a system of cooperation to fight the common enemy in that country. The US-hired private military contractors may do quite a different thing to undermine the process. There will be no one accountable for their actions. Is there any way to make sure PMCs will comply with the Russia-US would-be agreement? Is there any way to guarantee PMCs will respect the accords achieved at the UN-sponsored Geneva talks? Can the US be trusted under the circumstances? What will the seasoned private warriors do when the contract in Syria is expired? Will they facilitate peace management process even if it clearly does not meet their interests? Will the next US president include the problem into his or her agenda? Will he or she continue Obama’s policy of increasingly relying on PMCs to wage wars or try to turn the tide? Nobody has ever asked a US presidential candidate about his or her attitude to this policy.
There are many questions unanswered as the issue of US using private military contractors is barely highlighted and is kept out of public discourse without being discussed neither in the US, nor internationally. But the dangerous trend is there with global implications to ensue.