August 16, 2005

War For Sale

In the New York Times Magazine this past weekend, Daniel Bergner had a cover story on the various privatized military firms operating in Iraq these days. Great topic, great article. Unfortunately, he never really delves into one topic I’ve been curious about; namely, how military personnel on the ground feel about these mercenary groups roving around Iraq—we get that old Washington Post story about a group of contractors who were detained by the military, abused, and taunted, but not much else. So who knows? But minor quibble. One of Bergner’s concluding paragraphs hurls down the two-ton question:
[W]hat will happen when the private work in Iraq finally winds down is a more concrete concern. What will happen to these companies, these men, without these thousands of jobs? Some will get contracts protecting U.S. departments and agencies around the world. Some will do the same for other governments. Doug Brooks, whose Washington industry organization, the International Peace Operations Association, represents several of the largest firms, says he believes the United Nations will soon hire the companies to guard refugee camps in war zones.

But some of the firms and some of the men will no doubt be offered work by dictators or terrible insurgencies -- or by the kind of oil speculators who reportedly backed a recent mercenary-led coup plot in Equatorial Guinea (a plot involving former members of Executive Outcomes), in an attempt to install a ruler to facilitate their enterprise. And with so many newly created private soldiers unemployed when the market of Iraq finally crashes, aren't some of them likely to accept such jobs -- the work of mercenaries in the chaotic territories of the earth?
Chaotic indeed. And since the pool of privatized security firms—mercenaries—will only grow and expand as more and more soldiers retire from the military (or shun their relatively meager re-enlistment bonuses in favor of plum contracting jobs), it’s worth thinking about the actual geo-political shifts we may start to see as a result. In the future, for instance, many smaller and weaker nations might no longer be quite so dependent on military aid from the United States. Why get on your knees and grovel for a few Pentagon fighter jets, with all the strings that inevitably come attached, when you can just spend a bit and contract out a MIG-29 fighter unit of your very own—precisely what both Ethiopia and Eritrea did towards the end of their 20-year war. Or imagine that you’re a friendly neighborhood autocrat, you need a strong military, perhaps to put down pesky insurrections or the like, but you don’t want to invite the U.S. or NATO in to train the local army. Just hire some private bodyguards, or a counterinsurgency-training squad (Iraq should breed plenty of those), and you’re good to go.

On the international stage, things get even more complex. Private security firms might end up overturning all those classic 'balance of power' analyses we've all come to depend on for assessing wars. If a given country, with enough money in its piggy-bank, can simply employ these military firms at a moments’ notice, that will make it awfully difficult for other states to figure out just how strong their opponent is. No one could have foreseen Croatia’s stunning victory over Serbia in 1994, for instance, because conventional military analyses would have all overlooked the possibility that Croatia would sign a consulting contract with MPRI, which in turn gave its beleaguered military a much-needed edge. Meanwhile, who's to say that the hired help won't suddenly switch sides at a moment's notice, or be a little less than enthusiastic about dying in battle? Suddenly, war becomes a tad trickier.

But why stop there? It’s also possible that, in the future, state militaries will no longer remain the ultimate locus of power. If, let’s say, a terrorist network or an insurgent group can rustle up enough money, it might be able to contract and employ one of these private security firms—something along the lines of the Executive Outcomes private commando unit used by the Angolan government to beat back the UNITA rebels in 1994—and actually overwhelm weaker states. That EO unit could probably topple most African governments, I’m guessing. A bit of cash and the right contacts, and now you too can conquer your own country, and set up your terrorist camps or whatever it is you like to do. Now I’m just speculating here; I have no idea if private military firms could actually cause this much chaos, but it’s worth mulling over. And oh we haven't even begun discussing the ways in which the White House and Pentagon can employ private military firms to fight minor wars and skirmishes without Congress shoving its nose in where it's not wanted (as the Clinton administration discovered, to its infinite delight, in Colombia). Let the good times roll...
-- Brad Plumer 9:40 AM || ||