Photo credit Rande Archer/Fliker
A congressional report release in April 2017 reveals that the number of private military and security contractors operating in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troop by 3 to 1. True, throughout American history contractors have been an essential part of any war effort. But the figures from Afghanistan are simply off the charts. In the Revolutionary War of 1776, for instance, for 1 contractor there were 6 soldiers. During the Civil War the contractor to soldier ratio stood on 1 to 5. In WWI for every contractor there were 24 soldiers and in WWII 7 soldiers. During the Vietnam War the ratio was 1:5 and in the Gulf War 1:55. In other words, the part contractors are taking in contemporary American wars is unprecedented, signaling a new trend.
If at the beginning of the conflict the role of private military contractors was mostly limited to development, consulting, and training, as the war developed so did their involvement. A 2011 congressional report outlines the type of services provided by private military sub-contractors (PMSCs) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those services include intelligence, base support, security, construction, transportation, translation, logistics, and communication. Most of these services were traditionally conducted by soldiers. Though some of the services sound banal on paper, on the ground transporting goods for military bases or establishing communication networks involves taking high risks. More interesting are the security services provided. Those services include sedentary security missions, base protection, convoy protection, mobile armed patrols, and VIP protection among others. In many cases the line between security and combat is blurred placing the contractors at the spearhead of the war effort.
Stupefying as it is, the privatization of security in conflict areas is only part of a broader trend that is occurring in which private companies are taking over activities that used to be reserved for military and police. Security in the private prisons falls under the company operating them. Private police is a common practice across the US, with housing project private police teams, universities’ private police forces, and security officers that have similar authority as the police in places such as North Carolina. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US. The UK is a PMSC hub, in Israel PMSCs are in charge of border security and sensitive installations, and in Indonesia and Somalia PMSCs are an integral part of the anti-piracy force.
Why this is important?
First, given this is a new trend, many of these companies are ill regulated. This raises questions regarding accountability and transparency. For example, if a contractor commits a war crime, who should be held accountable? Is it the state that outsourced its services? The company that hired this individual? Or the responsibility rests only on the contractor.
Second, unlike other types of services, outsourcing security represents a tear-down of the monopoly on the means of violence states enjoy. In historical processes that have taken centuries, states have emerged as the only entity holding a legitimate use of the means of violence. Delegating this resource cannot be swept under the rug. It is a serious process that needs to be well thought out and not rushed into. The implications of making mistakes can be quit destabilizing.
Finally, allowing for-profit companies to deal with security, meaning, running our prisons and fighting our wars, may lead to more prisons and prisoners and endless wars. An industry that benefits from those aspect lacks the proper incentive to bring a result that a state would.