Private Military and Security Companies in Iraq

Private Military and Security Companies in Iraq

Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in Iraq

Abstract: This article discusses the contracting of private military and security companies (PMSCs) in Iraq by states. In the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the disinclination over performing full-scale interventions, PMSCs find themselves in demand for various roles and obligations. Beginning with a brief background on the use of PMSCs during the Iraq War, the author aims to enlighten readers on the prospect of an increased PMSC usage in Iraq and the likely challenges such a scenario may involve.

PMSCs in Iraq

During the Iraq War (2003-2011), the US-led coalition contracted PMSCs to support the fight against militants and insurgents who opposed the occupation and post-invasion Iraqi government. PMSCs provided an effective stopgap measure for the problem of overstretched conventional military forces.[1] The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 effectively saw the end of the Iraq War, but the insurgency crisis that ensued and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) led to the return of American-led intervention in Iraq. This also meant that PMSCs found their applicability, again.

There is an appeal to contracting PMSCs, as they alleviated the strain on coalition military forces in combat matters and law enforcement during the Iraq War. The use of PMSCs allowed US and coalition forces to allocate soldiers to more active and possibly combat-heavy duties. PMSCs found their use in various of ways, including providing logistical support, retraining programmes for Iraqi forces and close protection. PMSC contractor personnel in Iraq peaked in quarter 3 (Q3) of fiscal year (FY) 2009, at over 15,000[2], in comparison to the 134,500 US armed forces personnel in Iraq that year.[3]

Peters, Schwartz and Kapp (2017), pp.8

The presence of PMSCs in Iraq does not come without controversy. Headline scandals involving dubious escalation-of-force incidents and questionable methods spanned the Iraqi occupation. Some examples include the Abu Ghraib torture scandal involving CACI and L-3 Services (formerly Titan Corporation)[4], the DynCorp-Ahmed Chalabi incident[5] and various Academi (formerly Xe and Blackwater) scandals.[6] Studying PMSCs is also a difficult task because the exact role contractors play in military operations is not always straightforward. For example, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) did not release data on contractors until the second half of 2007[7], making one wonder just how embedded are PMSCs in US military operations. Confidentiality agreements and contractual vagueness also make identifying potential contractual violations difficult.[8]

Considering the negative press, the questions one must then ask are is why do states persist to contract PMSCs and whether there will be an increased presence of PMSCs in the Middle East in the near future. As of Q4 of FY2016, there were almost 3,000 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq, compared to a force management level authorising the presence of up to 4,087 US troops in Iraq.[9] This statistic signifies the preference of states, particularly the US in contracting PMSCs, instead of just deploying their own forces.

Weisgerber (2016).

In the fight against IS in Iraq, the organisation has proved remarkably resilient to military force. Due to the prospect of “putting boots on the ground” being as unpopular in public and political opinion[10], foreign ground troops are not forthcoming and while a sizeable local ground force is fighting IS in Iraq, the troops are unlikely to venture into Syrian territory.[11] The PMSC industry can see this as an opportunity to ply their trade, as Erik Prince (former CEO of Academi) has promoted the idea of sending in PMSCs as a ground force.[12]

In the past, the involvement of PMSCs in African civil wars on average shortened said wars.[13] Nevertheless, a similar use of PMSCs will arguably find difficulty in the current Iraqi and Syrian environment to effectively execute their trade. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The most significant consideration of all is the involvement of multiple regional and world powers in the conflict, coupled with disagreements over whom to support.[14] PMSCs tend to be governmentally contracted, therefore with numerous interested parties, each government will be inclined to contract their own PMSCs to safeguard their individual interests in the region, which may result in disagreements and dissent between PMSCs.
  2. Relationship to the local population is also key for success.[15] Past experiences of PMSCs in Iraq has caused PMSCs to be in bad repute, and created a long-lasting resentment and hatred from the Iraqi population.[16] Without the support of the locals, PMSCs stand little chance of isolating IS supporters and winning a decisive military victory.[17]
  3. In consideration of the remarkable military capabilities of IS, highly qualified PMSCs should still be able to take on IS, though a quick victory would be impossible.[18]

The present prominent strategy in the fight against IS in Iraq is the supporting of IS-opposition factions, such as the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces.[19] As PMSCs are of significant usage by the US, it will be interesting how the Trump administration will affect this industry. President Trump has stated that he plans to increase and upgrade the US military in various ways.[20] The international community’s aversion towards full-scale foreign interventions may compel the US government and the Department of Defense (DoD) to lean on PMSCs more heavily in the fight against IS. Apart from the US, the Iraqi government is also leaning towards PMSCs to support their operations against IS and insurgents/resistance.[21] These revelations reveal that although conventional military forces can combat the insurgency crisis, matters of maintaining security and preventing re-infiltration has caused forces to be heavily stretched[22], thus calling on PMSCs to help carry the burden.


PMSCs have been in Iraq since the Iraq War and their use has supported the efforts of coalition forces in eradicating militants and insurgents. Despite the controversy surrounding alleged misbehaviour and contractual violations, governments, especially the US, continually contract PMSCs for various roles and obligations. As the fight against IS spreads across Iraq, local and coalition forces find themselves stretched thin, thus calling for the aid from PMSCs.

The prospect of full-scale interventions is unpopular in the international community, both in civil and political circles, therefore PMSCs have become the ultimate commodity in the War on Terror. Undoubtedly this lands in moral hazards, as the barriers in entering conflict are lowered. As numerous foreign powers seek to exert their influence in the region, it will be intriguing to see whether PMSCs are more heavily used and what the outcome will be in such circumstance.

Written by Alexander Halliday.

[1] Kwok (2006), pp.34.

[2] Peters, Schwartz and Kapp (2017), pp.3 and pp.10.

[3] Ibid., pp.10.

[4] Kwok (2006), pp.36; Gomez del Prado (2010).

[5] Douglas-Bowers (2011).

[6] Gomez del Prado (2010); Douglas-Bowers (2011); Gilsinan (2015).

[7] Zenko (2016).

[8] Douglas-Bowers (2011); Isenberg (2017); Gomez del Prado (2010).

[9] Peters, Schwartz and Kapp (2017), pp.7.

[10] Petersohn (2017); Isenberg (2017).

[11] Petersohn (2017).

[12] Petersohn (2017); Isenberg (2017).

[13] Petersohn (2015).

[14] Al-Mukhtar (2016).

[15] Petersohn (2017).

[16] Petersohn (2017); Gomez del Prado (2010); Isenberg (2017); Douglas-Bowers (2011); Kwok (2006); Gilsinan (2015); Zenko (2016).

[17] Petersohn (2017).

[18] Ibid.

[19] BBC News (2015); United States Institute of Peace (2016).

[20] Isenberg (2017); Qiu (2017).

[21] Albawaba News (2017).

[22] Naylor (2016); Albawaba News (2017); Neuhof (2016); Kwok (2006).


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