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Private Soldiers Fighting In More Conflicts Around the World - 2004-02-04

Industries worldwide today are rapidly moving towards privatization. We've heard of private airlines, private health insurance and private education. The idea is to save money and stay competitive in the global market. But a rather unlikely institution is now embracing this trend: the military. Countries around the world, especially the United States, have hired private military contractors to serve as soldiers along with their regular armies in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. While governments advocate using contractors on grounds of economy and efficiency, critics say a reliance on hired help raises a series of questions for democracy, human rights and national security. VOA's Prerna Kumar reports.

It's being called the privatization of the army. It's a trend where private military firms, or PMFs, offer the expertise of retired generals and services of former soldiers for a profit. Today this 'private military industry' made up of thousands of firms and tens of thousands of employees worldwide has become a multi-billion dollar business. Observers say the move toward privatization of the armed forces has been gaining momentum since the end of the Cold War and has reached a high point in the conflict in Iraq. Nearly 13,000 private contractors stationed in Iraq offer a range of services to the US Army: from training the new Iraqi army, performing peacekeeping duties to front-line combat.

Peter Singer, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the book Corporate Warriors, notes that contractors have been a part of the US Army for more than a century. He adds however, that “over the last decade, contractors have gone from performing secondary or supplementary roles like providing for food and housing for the troops to taking over quintessential military roles.” He says, “today contractors are doing everything from providing technical assistance of weapons to even operating sophisticated machinery.”

Mr. Singer says America's reliance on contracted security personnel has increased ten-fold since the first Gulf War. While in 1991 there was one contractor for every 100 soldiers instead today there is one contractor for every 10 servicemen in Iraq. The US government is believed to have awarded some three thousand contracts over the last decade to private firms. And last year the United States spent one-third of its military budget or nearly 30 billion dollars on contracts to private firms.

Analysts list a variety of reasons to explain the growth of the private military sector. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, governments began to down size their militaries. As a result, some 6 million servicemen worldwide were thrown into the job market. Private corporations have soaked up much of this manpower and expertise.

Secondly, in an age of high-tech warfare, governments have to rely on trained civilians from the information technology industry to operate advanced weaponry. General William Odum, Director of the National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute, says, modern militaries today cannot function without the help of the private sector because the need for IT professionals is huge in the military. “The military cannot pay the wages to keep first rate IT workers on active duty. And contracting out is the way to get competence.” General Odum notes that while “the military can be the most unresponsive bureaucracy in the world particularly in developing new equipment and providing logistics, private sector firms are extremely responsive when there's a dollar involved.”

Some analysts agree that privatization has meant improved capability and effectiveness for the army. Others question the use of hired help, especially when it means putting contractors in the line of fire. Sanho Tree, of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington believes the right to use force rests solely with the state. He says using contractors instead of regular servicemen allows the US government to intervene in conflicts that do not enjoy public support. “In Columbia a number of contractors were lost but they have been listed as private individuals who died performing their private line of work.” As a result he adds, “they are not given the attention of military deaths and you don't see flag draped coffins begin flow into the country.”

Peter Singer warns of another danger. Contractors lie outside the Army's chain of command and are not bound by US or international military law. So it is difficult for governments to hold contractors accountable for any violations. For example, some employees of a private American firm DynCorp, hired to train the Bosnian army in the late 1990's, were charged with running a sex-slavery operation. The accused were fired from their jobs but never prosecuted for their alleged crimes. Mr. Singer says the international community needs to monitor this private industry to avoid such mishaps in the future. He stresses the need for “international law needs to catch up to this industry.” He says he finds it incredible that “there’s a 100-billion-dollar industry that is playing one of the most important roles in international politics, and is taking part in warfare and yet international law has nothing to say about it.”

So why are contractors willing to perform high-risk jobs in areas of conflicts as part of an unregulated industry that offers little protection from unseen dangers? Sanho Tree says private firms offer lucrative salaries. Many servicemen like former officers of Britain's Special Air Services, or SAS, who are working in Iraq, find the money hard to resist. He says, “there are more ex-SAS men in Iraq now than current ones because the ones with private military firms they get 1000 dollars a day. And they perform the same duties that military performs for a fraction of that money.”

Marc Gonsalves, a US citizen was also attracted by the prospect of earning a six-figure salary even if it meant risking his life in the jungles of Colombia. He was hired by a private US firm called CMS for an annual 150,000 to run anti-narcotic missions in Colombia. His new career was far more rewarding than his previous one as a sergeant in the US Army. But then last winter his plane crashed in the Colombian jungle. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia took him hostage, executed a colleague who was with him and has kept Marc captive for more than a year. His mother Jo Rosano says Washington should work to free him. “A lot of money from this country goes to Colombia to fight in this civil war, which really should not be any of our business.” She hopes President Bush would “pressure President Uribe to get these guys out because the men were just doing their job.”

Despite the dangers, analysts agree the established military benefits from this private industry. But they say governments must carefully decide which tasks are outsourced to the private market and which are not. They say it is also necessary to regulate the private industry, set stricter rules and monitor firms to ensure they are legitimate. These steps say observers will help create a balance where governments gain from the private market while avoiding potential dangers an unregulated industry may pose to world security.