Armed Entrepreneurs: Private Military Companies in Iraq

By Kwok, James | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Armed Entrepreneurs: Private Military Companies in Iraq


Kwok, James, Harvard International Review


Pejoratively labeled the "whores of war" or the "soldiers of fortune," personnel from private military companies (PMCs) have been receiving undue negative media attention because their duties seem so similar to mercenaries of the old-fashioned variety.

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However, the typical PMC employee is not a direct descendant of the mercenary of the past. PMC employees do not work for multiple employers at once and are not officially assigned to direct combat situations. While a Hessian of the US Revolutionary War was solely a foot soldier, a modern PMC employee is capable of police training, personal protection, and support for weapons systems like bombers and helicopters. For example, many of the PMC employees in Iraq previously served in national militaries, often in special forces such as the Navy SEALs.

This new breed of military contracting has played a major role in shaping security in Iraq, offering logistical support and supply transportation to coalition forces as well as retraining programs for the Iraqi army. However, PMCs have consistently received negative press. Their allegedly close involvement in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal has increased suspicion, especially from the US military, of the reliability of contractors. Other critics blame the soaring costs of the Iraq War on the US government's contracting of PMCs. But, on the contrary, PMCs are critical--their security and logistical support services are needed now more than ever. However, past PMC profligacy in trouble spots such as Angola and Sierra Leone has shown the necessity for the Iraqi and US governments to impose new regulations on PMC behavior to ensure that they remain a positive and productive force in Iraq.

PMCs to the Rescue

The PMC presence in Iraq provides an effective stopgap measure for the problem of overstretched conventional military forces. The issue of the necessary level of troop numbers in Iraq has been an ongoing debate since the start of the occupation. In a 2003 press conference, US General John Abizaid of Central Command explained to reporters that "the number of troops--boots per square inch--is not the issue." However, other military personnel--particularly ex-military officials--have repeatedly recommended that the United States increase its troop numbers in Iraq. The shortage of troops is a confluence of several different factors. While America's War on Terror has directed substantial military manpower to Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military also has to fulfill peacekeeping duties in the Balkans and play a supporting role for the South Koreans along the demilitarized zone. Charles Pena, Director of Defense Policy at the Cato Institute, said in an interview with Voice of America that having fewer resources and less manpower devoted to Iraq has caused military forces to be rotated and redeployed, straining the troops. He adds that "there are many troubling and worrisome signs that [American defense policy] may be doing real damage to the United States Army," such as discouraging potential recruits who are wary of a lengthy tour of duty. Numbers prove the same point: for the fiscal year leading up to May 2005, the Army fell short of its recruitment goals by about 25 percent. While the size of the US Army contingent currently operating in Iraq is large, roughly 130,000 to 150,000 troops, the Army has recently been beset by difficulties, particularly in policing cities and providing rapid reaction to rebel attacks. The strain has thus caused a dearth of force strength and underscored the need for more manpower and alternative resources.

Private military companies such as Blackwater Inc. and DynCorp provide the logistical support and retraining programs necessary to alleviate the strain on US and Coalition military forces in combat matters and law enforcement. For example, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, a South African PMC, won multiple contracts from the Coalition to train a private Iraqi security group to guard buildings that had previously been guarded by US soldiers in early 2004. …

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