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A private patrol in Baghdad
Official US soldiers are leaving Iraq, but who's coming in?Image: AP

Private Military Companies

August 24, 2010

President Hamid Karzai says he wants them out of Afghanistan, while US President Barack Obama is planning to use them in Iraq to supplant withdrawn US combat troops. So how open to abuse are private military companies?


As the United States moves to withdraw more and more troops from Iraq, concerns are growing about who precisely will take their place. More specifically, many people are worried about military services being contracted out to private companies.

It is thought that as many as 100,000 employees of private military companies have been active in Iraq since the US-led war in 2003, and employees of private military and security companies (often referred to as PMCs and PSCs) have been involved in a number of fatal incidents. Most notably, in 2007, Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a shooting in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Some experts say that though PMCs and PSCs generate a lot of bad press and have been responsible for abuses in the past, they are a fact of life.

"These companies provide services governments struggle to provide," says Nigel Inkster, a former British intelligence official and now Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "A lot of what they do - for instance, protection and logistics - doesn't grab the headlines. Their more contentious jobs are prisoner interrogation, bodyguard activities and anything with the risk of firefights. And the problem there is that there are no firm guidelines."

A US private security officer with his face covered against dust
Transparency has been a major issueImage: AP

Others, however, suspect that private firms are employed for different reasons.

"For every public soldier who's withdrawn from Iraq, a private one will be coming in," says Rolf Uesseler, a German freelance author who wrote a well-regarded book on private military companies. "And the problem is always supervision. Using private military and security personnel is always a way of circumventing supervision. So the troops withdrawal is bad news for Iraq."

PSCs played a role in the scandal surrounding the torture of inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. And as if to underscore the sorts of abuses that have occurred in the past, the successor company to Blackwater, XE Services, was fined $42 million (33 million euros) earlier this week for violating rules governing exports of defense equipment.

Moreover, Iraq is hardly the only country where PMCs are a bone of contention.

Chucking out the contractors

US soldiers in Afghanistan
Official US soldiers may be in the minority in AfghanistanImage: AP

Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai went on American television to justify a decision to expel all private security contractors from his country, saying they were usurping functions from the proper local authorities and were themselves corrupt.

"I am appealing to the US taxpayer not to allow their hard-earned money to be wasted on groups that are not only providing lots of inconveniences to the Afghan people, but actually are in contact with Mafia-like groups and perhaps also funding militants and insurgents and terrorists through those firms," Karzai said on the program "This Week" on the ABC network.

That appeal, says Rolf Uesseler, reflects the fact that Karzai's situation has become untenable.

"The Afghan government has no power with which to negotiate with the various factions, which include the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, Pakistan and Iran," Uesseler told Deutsche Welle. "The Northern Alliance and even the Taliban employ PMCs, which has led to a chaotic situation. Karzai would have far more room to maneuver, if the PMCs were gone."

But Inkster says Karzai's stance has more to do with shoring up his own tenuous political standing.

"Karzai wants to create the impression that his government is calling the shots, when it clearly is not," Inkster told Deutsche Welle. "PMCs have attracted a lot of unwelcome publicity lately, and he's trying to ride that wave."

According to a 2009 report to the US Congress, some 74,000 employees of private security companies were active in Afghanistan. Before the recent surge in US troops there, private personnel outnumbered official US military forces. And indeed they probably still do.

A choice for Obama

Obama addressing West Point cadets
Obama has been unwilling or unable to change much in this areaImage: AP

When campaigning for the American presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was highly critical of the role played by private military and security companies. But by most accounts, as US President he has continued to use them.

Is this because of necessity? Or was Obama's opposition to PMCs itself a stance taken for political reasons?

"I think it's as much a function of events on the ground, which have determined how PMCs are used," Inkster says. "Obama must be aware of the adverse publicity potential that PMCs can generate for the US."

Uesseler points out that many private military and security companies are owned by huge arms manufacturers such as Northrop Grunman that may be too powerful even for the US president to take on directly.

For the immediate future, then, it seems as though PMCs are here to stay. The longer-term prospects, however, are less clear.

"It's an ambivalent situation at the moment," Uesseler says. "There's pressure growing from state militaries to do something about what they see as competition. People in Europe especially are beginning to question the hypocrisy of the West using PMCs while demanding that other countries adhere to a state monopoly on the use of force. And cultural awareness is also growing. Even in mainstream Hollywood films, mercenaries are increasingly being cast as the villains."

So while being employed to control conflict around the world, private military and security companies are themselves the object of an ongoing struggle. And the outcome remains uncertain.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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