Occupation for Hire: Private Military Companies and their Role in Iraq

Occupation for Hire: Private Military Companies and their Role in Iraq

Simons, David. RUSI Journal149.3 (Jun 2004): 68-71.

Abstract (summary)

Simons examines the role of private military companies and private security companies in the US’s occupation of Iraq. He provides historical background on the use of mercenaries, describes international laws that seek to regulate their use, and explores questions regarding their accountability. Among other things, he claims that the conflict in Iraq serves as a potent illustration of how deeply embedded the private sector is in the business of security and war, and why questions over legislation require urgent attention.

Full text

It is often said – not always in jest that the United States could not go to war without Keiiogg Brown and Root, one of its primary contractors. But only now, as the Coalition attempts to rebuild Iraq, has the true extent of Washington’s Outsourcing’ been laid bare.

The emergence and vast increase in private military companies (PMCs) and private security companies (PSCs) over the past decade is a direct result of the defence cuts since the end of the Cold War. As the size of the US Army has decreased by a third since 1990, the number of PMCs and PSCs has increased from just one in 1989 to approximately ninety today. These are not the mercenaries of post-colonial Africa. Rather, these are highly trained professionals, often ex-special forces who can demand a higher wage in the private sector. Clearly these private companies should be an asset to the overstretched armed forces of the most capable UN member states. The reality is often the reverse, however. The key word here is regulation. The US Department of Defense Outsources’ contracts for private companies to perform tasks usually reserved for their armed forces, ranging from catering to training foreign armies. For some, this approach is championed for its effectiveness in bringing companies closer to the government and making the deals and operations easier to monitor. Others see the system as one of government-sponsored mercenarism. Britain is currently part way along the route of possible regulation. It is useful, therefore, to assess the future prospects for PMCs and how the experience of Iraq may affect related UK regulatory policies.


The concept of private military and security companies is not uncontroversial. As non-state actors, questions are raised regarding the accountability of private companies, making the existence and activities of these freelance soldiers more and more the concern of states and international organizations. Although the French Foreign Legion and Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian Armies are serving a foreign master, they swear an oath of allegiance that makes them accountable to their paymasters, while the allegiance of PMCs shift with each contract. There is no monitoring regime in place to scrutinize the activities of PMC employees in the civil wars they commonly find themselves, and it is this that concerns governments. However, those in favour of regulating the private military sector highlight the corporate nature of PMCs. Each company relies on its good reputation to ensure future contracts and so to jeopardize this with a poor, undisciplined or even abusive operation would threaten its longevity. From the UN’s point of view, as a business with a corporate identity and staff, a PMC may be held accountable for the actions of its employees.

The relationship between a sovereign state and a PMC is now much more tenable and congruous than that which existed in the 1960s and 1970s between, for instance, mercenaries and African states. Mercenaries of the post-colonial era were involved in numerous attempted coups and toppling of sovereign governments. In contrast, today’s PMCs will only work under contract for a legitimate government (although conflicts that arise from allegations of election-fixing obviously cause complications) and in many cases PMCs employees will become members of the employer’s armed forces, such as Sandline International’s ‘Special Constables’ in Papua New Guinea. Protecting its citizens is one of the state’s prime obligations; if it is unable to do so unassisted, then employing those who can should surely be permissible.

View Image -   Scene of car bombing near entrance to Coalition HQ in Baghdad that killed two Britons, including a former soldier who was part of a team working for Control Risks Croup to provide security to Foreign Office staff in Iraq, 24 May 2004.

Possibly the most contentious aspect of PMCs is the underlying assumption fuelling their increasing appeal: that political stability can be returned by military solutions. The conflicts in which PMCs are hired to intervene are often civil wars caused by political unrest or schism. By definition PMCs have military expertise. Although the heads of these companies may have experience in the upper echelons of national or even supranational armed forces during ethno-political crises, PMCs do not constitute a ‘political’ solution. PMCs may make up an important part of the road to peace, insofar as they can secure the legitimate government’s military position to facilitate a ceasefire, but the danger lies in the erroneous assumption that PMCs end wars.


There are, at present, only two pieces of legislation in international law that consider the use of mercenaries: the 1977 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa and the 1989 UN Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. Both conventions are based on rather vague definitions of what constitutes a mercenary; the former defines him by his actions and the latter by his status and motivations. This lack of a clear legal definition would make an indictment almost impossible. Instead, legislation regarding mercenaries and PMCs is enshrined at the national level.

The most advanced legislation on mercenaries and PMCs exists in the United States, a major source of freelance military expertise. The 1968 Arms Export Control Act, which regulates arms brokering and the selling of military expertise in any form, governs American PMCs and PSCs. This Act is the primary legislation regarding the selling of services overseas and was amended in the 1980s to take into account the rising number of PMCs and PSCs emerging and aiding non-aligned countries. Any American company that provides any security or military service abroad must register and apply for a licence from the State Department under the International Transfer of Arms Regulations (ITAR), and contracts over $50m must be approved by the government. Another important piece of legislation relevant to modern mercenaries is the Federal Criminal Statute, which proscribes the enlisting or recruiting of American citizens within the United States for service against a state that the US is at peace with.

The controversy of PMCs has led South Africa to implement similar legislation. The first PMC was the South African company Executive Outcomes, made up mainly of former soldiers of the South African Defence Force’s 32 Battalion, Koevoet and Parabat seeking employment after the end of Apartheid. However, in 1998 the South African Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act (FMA) was introduced prohibiting the employment of South African and any other citizen for mercenary activity, which is defined as direct involvement in a conflict as a combatant. This does not completely rule out foreign military assistance though, as the FMA is a regulatory rather than prohibiting instrument. Applications for providing assistance are sent to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) for scrutiny, chaired by an independent government minister not involved in defence issues.

Essentially, the British legislation that covers mercenaries is the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act, which prohibits the enlistment or recruitment of British citizens for foreign military service. This Act is almost impossible to enforce and so the 1976 Diplock Report recommended its repeal or, preferably, its replacement. The Diplock Report was commissioned to study the role of British mercenaries in Angola in the 1970s and its publication caused a few surprises. Although the Report declared that the prohibition of British citizens serving overseas as mercenaries was against individual human rights, the restricted freedom of movement for those wishing to go abroad to serve was justified if in the interest of national security. The most important conclusions drawn were that the United Kingdom could not base its legal stance on the 1870 Foreign Service Act and that a new system of legislation and monitoring was necessary. However, very few of the recommendations were acted upon and so three decades on the question of legislation and regulation has re-emerged.

An investigation into regulation was not embarked upon in earnest until the 1998 ‘Arms to Africa’ scandal, also known as the ‘Sandline Affair’. The furore was, at its core, all a matter of misinterpretation and confusion.1 On 8 October 1997 the UN security Council passed Resolution 1132 condemning the coup that had ousted President Kabbah, pledging support to the Economic Committee of West African States (ECOWAS) and its Military Observation Croup (ECOMOC), and banning the supply of arms and supplies to the military junta. The British secretary of State for Trade and Industry made order 1997 No.2464 banning the supply of equipment to any party in Sierra Leone and the Privy Council passed Order-in-Council 1997 No.2592, which proscribed supplying the Sierra Leone government without clarifying whether it meant the illegal junta or the government-in-exile then in Guinea. When the British PMC Sandline International supplied ECOWAS with arms for the Kamajors (supporters of the legitimate government), the scandal erupted and the Labour government commissioned the Legg Report to establish the facts. The subsequent Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC) that ran between October and December 1998 recommended a Green Paper on the regulation of British PMCs, and this time the recommendation was heeded.

In February 2002, the Green Paper Private Military Companies: Options for REgulation was published, outlining the possible future of legislation. The Paper considered six options: a ban on military activity abroad; a ban on recruitment for military activity abroad; a licensing regime for military services; registration and notification; a general licence for PMCs/PSCs; and self-regulation (a voluntary code of conduct). An attempt at any form of ban was acknowledged as unhelpful as it would simply move the problem abroad and possibly destroy legitimate businesses in the arms trade. Instead, a licensing regime seems to be preferred. A private company would register itself and outline its services in order to be granted an operating licence. A further option is for a PMC or PSC to then apply for a licence for each contract it is offered. Similar to the US system, this is most welcome to PMCs and PSCs themselves, although there are reservations over the length of time licensing decisions may take. Continuing the process of review, the Ninth Report of the FASC suggested two more options: a government/public funded company, and greater arms control. Although the Report urges serious consideration, a government-funded private army seems rather antithetical. The latter deals, on the other hand, with the crux of the problem: to tighten arms control is to allow the operation of legitimate companies only.

The current US occupation of Iraq, which has led to unprecedented involvement of private contractors, serves as a potent illustration of how deeply embedded the private sector is in the business of security and war, and why questions over legislation require urgent attention.


Rarely a day goes by without the US Department of Defense announcing a huge new contract with a private company, typically with familiar names like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman or Raytheon to buiid the hardware used by the armed forces worldwide.2 However, private companies no longer simply build the equipment for the regular Gl to use on the battlefield. Today the company provides the cooks to cater for the regiment, the technicians to operate the missile systems and the instructors to train the foreign army. Suffice to say it has never been truer that the United States ‘cannot go to war without Kellogg Brown and Root’. No longer is the privatization of war demonstrated by white mercenaries in the Congo or former South African Special Forces in Angola. Now, the friendly canteen lady is as much a part of this overhaul as the gun-toting guard at an oil installation.

All the private companies currently in Iraq fit into one of two categories: civilian or ex-military. From an operational perspective, the most troublesome have been the civilian companies. It is one thing serving meals in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, quite another doing the same in Fallujah, Iraq. The US military has Outsourced’ a great deal of its more menial tasks and logistics to private companies, freeing up soldiers, sailors and airmen for training for war or peacekeeping duties. But when the insurance for these civilian contractors skyrocketed as war seemed more probable, the US Army was left in the desert with few specialists adept at performing the logistics roles necessary to build camps for an occupation force. While the UK press criticized the British build-up whilst spotlighting the American ‘Burger-King-at-every-camp’ luxury approach, the reality of the American struggle to take civilians to war was largely hidden away. Although this reluctance to deploy and failure to mobilize may have been exaggerated by antiprivatization groups, it is indeed a real threat to operations. Iraq proved an important lesson in the over-reliance on private companies to perform the logistics role. After all, an army marches on its stomach.

As the ‘Shock and Awe’ of a year ago becomes ‘Stalemate and Attrition’, private companies will play a larger role as public opinion influences Coalition governments. The ready replacements for the withdrawing troops are already in-theatre and have been all the while – the PMCs and PSCs. PMCs and PSCs employ ex-military personnel almost without exception, and it is these companies which are rebuilding Iraq. Put in perspective, Britain provided approximately 11,000 troops to Operation Telic, while the number of private contractors’ employees in Iraq currently stands between 10-20,000. The most common task for these companies is providing security for Western interests such as oil installations, embassies, journalists, and even Coalition Provisional Authority personnel. To list a few: Virginian company Custer Battles guards Baghdad International Airport; British-South African Erinys provides security to the oilfields; Global Risk Strategies protects the Coalition Provisional Authority, and so forth. Their appeal to the entrepreneurial ex-soldier is obvious: a PMC/PSC employee can earn between £300 ($500) and £600 ($1,000) per day depending on their specialism.

The most controversial contracts are those made with the Vinnell Corporation to train the Iraqi Army and Dyncorp to train the Iraqi police force. In Sierra Leone between 2000 and 2002 the British Army supplied instructors to train the Sierra Leone Army to prevent a future rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front. Likewise, Britain deployed 500 troops from the 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to Iraq in January for a six month posting to train Iraqi security forces. For this task there is a clear mandate and the training is being carried out by a force that abides by international law and is accountable to it. This is clearly not the case with Vinnell and Dyncorp. Although these two companies employ former military personnel, there are no longer the same checks and balances in place as they experienced in the US Army. The accountability of PMCs and PSCs needs, therefore, to be properly addressed at both the national and international level before entering into such contracts, which typically have been agreed on reputation alone.

PMCs and PSCs have, nevertheless, acquitted themselves admirably thus far, and although there are no officially published figures, it is believed hundreds have already died fulfilling their contracts. In Britain, this was highlighted most recently in late May by a car bombing near the entrance to Coalition Headquarters in Baghdad. The attack killed two Britons, including a former soldier who was part of a team working for Control Risks Group to provide security to Foreign Office staff in Iraq. The deaths of these contractors in the line of duty illustrates the ‘high risk/high reward’ nature of their work.

Since the end of the Cold War, the reduction in the size of armed forces without a commensurate reduction in the number of tasks undertaken has inevitably led to overstretch. With adequate regulation that is based, at the very least, on registration and licensing, PMCs and PSCs could prove a vital ally in an increasingly fractious world. Britain has already suggested hiring PMCs as peacekeepers, and although this was met with consternation in some corners, the policy direction is constructive.

The Iraq War has highlighted the faults of over-reliance of private contractors, but has not, as yet, undermined the efficacy of PMCs and PSCs for carrying out certain crucial tasks in high conflict environments. It is apparent from press reports over the past year that any wrong-doing on the part of private companies will likely be seized upon to discredit them, whereas their success in carrying out various roles will probably go under-reported, if not be ignored. As the Sandline Affair demonstrated, only failure will grab headlines and serve as the likely catalyst for PMC regulation to be pushed onto the UK Parliament’s agenda.


The conflict in Iraq serves as a potent illustration of how deeply embedded the private sector is in the business of security and war, and why questions over legislation require urgent attention


Suffice to say it has never been truer that the United States ‘cannot go to war without Kellogg Brown and Root’



1. Lt-CoI Tim Spicer, who then headed Sandline International, discusses the events and proceedings in his autobiography, An Unconventional Soldier: Peace and War and the Sandline Affair (Edinburgh & London: Mainstream Publishing, 2000), pp789-223.

2. U.S. DoD contracts of$5m and above are announced at www.defenselink.mil/contracts.


David Simons read War Studies at King ‘s College, London before becoming a freelance writer. He has written a number of articles on unconventional warfare and contemporary naval warfare, as well as co-writing a book on the history of flight

Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Jun 2004

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