Growing reliance on mercenaries spells more chaos in the region

Tuesday 17/11/2020
A 2019  file photo shows a reported foreign pilot whose plane was shot down by troops loyal to Libyan National Army troops, while in custody near Tripoli. (AFP )
A 2019 file photo shows a reported foreign pilot whose plane was shot down by troops loyal to Libyan National Army troops, while in custody near Tripoli. (AFP )

Private force has become big business. No one knows how many billions of dollars move around in this illegal market. Since the turn of the century, mercenary activity has played a major role in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria and Libya. More recently, it played a central role in the fighting in Nagorno Karabakh. In the 2017 fiscal year, the Pentagon gave $320 billion to federal contracts, 71% of which was for “services” – a heading under which the use of private military companies falls.

The Middle East region is awash with soldiers of fortune looking for work. The capital of Kurdistan, Erbil has become a key unofficial marketplace for  mercenary services. Some of them, such as the Russian Wagner Group or Turkey’s militants for hire, serve as alternates for the official armies. Others just want terrorists dead, and still others are in it for the adventure or are American or British veterans who find normal life too boring. As a battle in Syria earlier this year showed, mercenaries are more powerful than many experts realise: It took America’s most elite troops and advanced aircraft four hours to repel 500 mercenaries.

Turkey dispatched thousands of militants and mercenaries from Syria to help its allied Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. The United Arab Emirates dispatched hundreds of special forces mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, most of whom are drawn from South American countries like Columbia, Panama, El Salvador and Chile, veterans of the drug wars. They were paid three to four times their old salaries, but came at a fraction of the cost that British or American mercenaries would charge. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates are simply following the lead of the US as it closes it eyes on mercenaries fighting the wars of its allies although it is never shy to denounce Russia’s use of mercenaries in Ukraine and Libya. The West criticises Turkish leaders for deploying Syrian mercenaries in Libya and the Caucasus especially when it tries to impose its own endgame. But everybody is playing the same game. Nobody in the West criticised Nigeria when it resorted to South African mercenaries to hem in Boko Haram.

It is hardly surprising that states hire mercenaries: The Nigerian army failed to make inroads against Boko Haram for six years and in the Middle East, national armies make slow progress while the United Nations is absent.

Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and private military contractor who is now an associate professor at the US National Defence University, provided in “The Modern Mercenary” (OUP 2014) an unparalleled perspective into the nuts and bolts of this opaque world, explaining the economic structure of the industry and showing in detail how firms operate on the ground. The name Blackwater, renamed Xe Services and now Academi, has sometimes made the news. It runs a 7,000 acre training facility in North Carolina and had by 2007 produced an army of 20,000 troops and 20 aircraft, most of which were shipped to Afghanistan and Iraq on US government contracts. But few have heard of the security giant G4S, the second largest employer on earth with 625,000 employees (behind Walmart). It has a security presence in 125 countries. Who has heard of the Australian-owned Unity Resources Group or Erinys, thousands of whose guards protect Iraq’s oil installations, or DynCorp, whose revenue amounts to nearly $3.5 billion annually, or Triple Canopy? As McFate points out, “contract warfare has become a new way of warfare, resurrected by the United States and imitated by others.”

A file picture shows Venezuelan soldiers transferring a suspect from a helicopter after what authorities described was “a mercenary incursion”. (REUTERS)
A file picture shows Venezuelan soldiers transferring a suspect from a helicopter after what authorities described was “a mercenary incursion”. (REUTERS)

Contract warfare and mercenaries were common throughout history, not least before the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). “Condottiere” and “Landsknechts” dominated war in a Europe where sovereignty was fragmented among actors as diverse as king, emperor, bishop, prince, city state and chivalric order.  By the 17th century, war had become the biggest industry in Europe and had given rise to military enterprisers, such as Count Albrecht Wallenstein, the Marquess of Spinola and Bernard von Weimar, who outfitted what were known as “rental regiments.” The peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw the consolidation of the modern state and consecration of the rule that the use of violence be a state monopoly.

Mercenaries had wiped out one third of the population of central Europe that it took Germany a century to recover. The rulers of Europe put an end to the free market for force — public armies replaced private ones. It is worth remembering that the history of mercenaries stretches back thousands of years. Xenophon had a huge army of Greek mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand (401-399 BC), Carthage relied on mercenaries during the Punic Wars and half of William the Conqueror’s army were hired swords. The Mamluk Sultanate  (1250-1517) was a regime of mercenary slaves converted to Islam and the Byzantine emperors famously relied on the Varangian Guard of Norse mercenaries whose prowess in battle was matched by their ability to swill vast tankards of beer.

But what are the causes of this rather quick reversal to mercenaries after more than three centuries of national armies? As the world became more unstable at the end of the Cold War, the US began downsizing its massive military by 40% in order to reap a “peace dividend.” Active-duty soldiers, sailors and airmen were reduced from 2.2 million to 1.4 million, troops stationed overseas shrunk by half, all of which left many well trained men without a job. Meanwhile, instability was growing: Whereas the US Army conducted ten operational events outside of normal training and alliance commitments between 1960 and 1991, that number jumped to 26 between 1991 and 1998. “Humane warfare” came into fashion and thus was borne a new world in which drones and the private military industry, the only one to provide Ground Zero soldiers, would do the dying for America.

The modern state, which had since 1648 been defined by the monopoly of force, was changing without anyone quite realising what was happening. Private armies offer on-demand services to execute whatever their employers (states, multinational companies, etc.) please and they are cheaper than public ones. They also offer governments the added advantage of being able to deny what they are really up to, since parliament has less access to what the executive is up to and no one ever tallies the numbers of dead contractors.

The world today increasingly resembles the “fragmented” and “fractured” sovereignty of the medieval world order. But America’s growing efforts to outsource its wars has more to do with imperial fatigue than anything else. Many of its leaders still want to fight, but the average American no longer wants to bleed. As war in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, America found its simply could not find enough recruits. What was it to do? Withdraw and concede defeat? Reinstate the draft? Use contractors to fill the ranks? Policymakers in Washington chose the third option.  From 2007 to 2012, the Pentagon spent about $160 billion on private security contractors — four times the UK’s defence budget. It may come to regret that decision as countries around the world follow suit.

Together with private intelligence industries, private armies are here to stay, and to grow, which opens up the possibility of wars without states – private wars – a concept that is inconceivable to most national security leaders or heads of state. Privatising war distorts warfare, opening up the strategies of the souk – everything is up for sale and must be bartered for. Fraud, deception, deceit and hard bargaining are the watchwords, but so are value and exotic merchandise. There are no refunds, returns or exchanges. Private war lowers the barriers for entry and breeds war; anyone who can afford mercenaries will be tempted to go to war. As for states used to conventional warfare, they are totally unprepared for what is already happening. The inevitable consequences, not least in the Middle East and Africa, will be rewritten frontiers, greater violence and some unexpected losers.