Mercenaries have appeared throughout history among the ranks of armies all over the world. They however have, in modern times, encountered legal proscriptions. Most notably, the United Nations instituted a ban on mercenaries in 2001, which has since been ratified by 34 countries. Nonetheless, private security firms, also known as private military companies or PMCs, continue to operate through government contracts. In recent years, PMCs have seen a boom thanks to their employment by coalition forces, mostly the United States, in the vast War on Terror–particularly in the Middle East.
Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times reported in 2010 that “up to as many as 7,000” private security contractors would serve as a defensive force in Iraq following the American military withdrawal. The expansion of PMCs and their increasingly broad global use raise concerns based on their conduct and the very nature of the business itself.
American security firms such as Blackwater, CACI International, and Titan Corporation gained a degree of infamy for their involvement in several scandals during the Iraq war. Blackwater, which has since been renamed and incorporated into a group called Academi, saw their license revoked by the Iraqi government in response to the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians by Blackwater employees. An earlier incident saw two Afghani civilians killed by Blackwater contractors, Amnesty International reports. Legally, security contractors are restricted to defensive action in war-zones but, as past events have shown, this does not mean that they are not a lethal force. Nor does it mean that they strictly follow this rule. PMCs are often accused of abusing their power, furthering their often dubious reputation.
Amnesty International states in their report on PMCs that firms across the globe “have been accused of engaging in a number of human rights violations,” going on to cite rape, torture, and human trafficking, as well as a number of other accusations.
Although armed PMC contractors tend to bear the brunt of the public’s attention, modern militaries contract private firms for more than just security. Corporations are hired by the Defense Department for functions as far ranging as construction and service industry labor.
So common is the use of private contractors that an August 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service found that “during recent U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors frequently averaged 50% or more of the total DOD [Department of Defense] presence in-country.” Despite the commonness of private contractors, PMCs warrant special attention because they are armed and, like all contractors, are not members of the military and thus are not scrutinized as closely by the government.
The Congressional Research Service report included figures showing that in Afghanistan during the first and second quarters of 2016, the number of contractors was more than three times that of total American armed forces. Among these tens of thousands were 872 private security contractors. The number has decreased over the last years, after reaching its height in 2010-2012. In those years, American troop presence was just under 100,000 and the number of private security contractors passed 10,000. During the third quarter of 2012, the number of security contractors was equal to more than a quarter of the American military presence, reaching 30,000.
Over time, private contractors have expanded their role in American conflicts abroad. The largest growth has occurred in the twenty-first century as a result of the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While security firms represent a relatively limited segment of military contractors serving the United States, they are still gaining ground as an integral part of war-fighting. They also hold the distinction of being the armed military-contracting organizations that are armed. For that reason, the trend of their growth is alarming, given the very public and often heinous crimes perpetrated by contractors. Those violations of human rights are a symptom of the more general concern regarding the privatization of warfare. Public awareness of this practice is key, being that use of these corporations as a supplement or an alternative to military force runs the risk of restricting government oversight in war-zones and puts those caught in the crossfire at even more danger of abuse and violence.
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