Can private military companies help in fight against Islamic State?

Private military companies are an essential part of today's conflicts. In the current situation concerning the wars in Syria and Iraq when none of the world powers wants to send its soldiers to fight, they might present the force necessary to defeat the Islamic State.

Even after several years of conflict, the situation in the Middle East is not getting better – the Islamic State (IS), a terrorist organisation operating in several countries of the Middle East region and North Africa, benefits from the unstable situation and controls large territories especially in Iraq and Syria. The fundamental problem in the fight against the IS is the fact that it combines conventional warfare with guerrilla tactics and terrorist attacks. The units of the IS are highly mobile, flexible, and if necessary they can blend in with the surroundings. They are able to make use of the desert environment, withdraw quickly and strike somewhere else. One of the options is to hire private military companies that could in some cases substitute for the permanent national army. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) tries a similar initiative when they sent Latin American mercenaries to fight to Yemen.

Any coalition against the IS under the auspices of NATO, that would be determined to send its troops into direct fights, is unlikely, as noted the Secretary General of the NATO Jens Stoltenberg. The US President Barack Obama spoke in similar lines and dismissed speculation about a possible large-scale American invasion of Syria and Iraq, but he agreed to increase the number of special forces. However, regional military forces are currently not able to defeat the IS – an inexperienced Iraqi army is in disarray and according to the words of retired US general John R. Allen from October 2014, it will take nearly a year before Iraq will be – even theoretically – able to launch an operation to retake Mosul. Kurdish Peshmergas keep themselves primarily in the Kurdish territories and they lack capacity and unified political will for a stronger offensive. Ankara sees the greatest threat in the Kurdish rebels in the east of the country, which is why it leaves the IS Islamists and the Jabhat al-Nusra a relatively large operational area.

Military campaigns are very unpopular from a political point of view – soldiers are dying in them, they are extremely expensive and present a long-term commitment for the interfering state. A typical example might be Iraq after the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein – after the withdrawal of allied troops in 2011, Iraq is caught up in a spiral of violence that resulted in the current situation where a considerable part of the territory is controlled by the IS and the central government has very limited power. One way how not to lose political points, lives and money from the state budget, are private military companies (private military companies – PMCs). Their task does not necessarily have to be fighting but performing for instance tasks associated with administration, protecting important buildings and processing information gathered by intelligence services.

One the main advantages of PMCs is that they are perceived differently by the public than soldiers from the army, so there is no pressure on political representatives to withdraw the soldiers from the given country. Another undeniable advantage of PMCs is their lower price because they are paid only for their work and for a specific time period. For example, total expense for one American soldier in Afghanistan in 2012 made about $815,000, while PMCs contractors can cost about $300,000 a year (depending on expertise, experience and place of work).

For these and other reasons, PMCs became a very important part of foreign missions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became the two most "privatised" wars in recent American history – for instance in Iraq in March 2010, two hundred thousand members of various PMCs equalled a hundred and fifty thousand of American soldiers. A prime example of a good use of PMCs is African Liberia – after the Second Liberian Civil War, which ended in 2003, the US commissioned a contract worth $100 million for restructuring the Liberian Army. The tender was won by DynCorp that set up a successful military model that is still working today. On this example, we can see the high level of effectiveness resulting from the flexibility of PMCs, which the state apparatus lacks.

However, the use of PMCs is problematic for several reasons. First, they disrupt the state's monopoly on legitimate violence that is based on the definition of the state by German sociologist Max Weber. The second controversial factor is the responsibility of PMCs – they very often operate in areas where they benefit from the fact that a constitutional state is an almost unknown concept there. Although the international humanitarian law defines who is a civilian and who is a combatant, the activities of members of PMCs operating in the country may not be so clear and the states employing PMCs can easily give up responsibility. The third problematic factor is that the soldiers of standing armies view members of PMCs as loose cannons and cooperation with them is, therefore, complicated and unpredictable.

This animosity is not entirely unfounded – the employees of CACI and Titan Corp. have a bad reputation because of their role in the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. But the biggest controversy was caused by perhaps the best known PMC Blackwater that on September 16th, 2007 in Nisour Square in Baghdad in Iraq killed 17 people and injured 20. For a long time, the incident disrupted the American-Iraqi relations and irrecoverably damaged reputations of all PMCs. According to the FBI's investigative report, at least 14 of the 17 people were shot for no reason and in 2014 four Blackwater employees were convicted of murder and manslaughter.

If the politicians cannot resolve to send strong ground forces that would deal a major blow to the IS, PMCs could present a solution in both combat and reconstruction phase. Particularly, PMCs could help in regaining Iraq's Mosul as part of a ground operation that will be absolutely crucial because airstrikes alone cannot succeed in such a demanding task alone.  As in Liberia, private military companies could contribute to the training of Iraqi security forces, but since the Iraqi army is many times larger than the Liberian army, training of all parts of the army is unthinkable. Therefore, attention should focus on niche units that focus on, for example, urban combat that will play an important role in the conflict with the IS.

About author: Jan Faltys

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