Private Security Companies, Good or Bad?

Posted on Sun 10/10/2010 by


Three years ago today; what became known locally as Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday occurred. This was the day when a Blackwater convoy opened fire at Nisour Square and 15 minutes later when the shooting stopped 17 Iraqis were dead and more than 20 were wounded. Blackwater’s official position was that the convoy had been fired on and returned defensive fire while the Iraqi investigation found that there was no evidence of any incoming fire, and the US military unit that responded to the incident did not find any evidence of insurgent activity in the area. Since that time, I haven’t read a single article about Private Security Company (PSC) operations anywhere in the world that doesn’t mention Blackwater or this incident as proof that those in the industry are undisciplined mercenaries at best or murderers at worst.

Recently President Karzai took everybody including his own cabinet by surprise when he announced that within four months or by 31 December 2010 all PSC’s operating legally in Afghanistan would be decertified and would have to turn their equipment over to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) who would take up all armed protective duties within Afghanistan. The deputy minister responsible for registering PSC’s made the mistake of saying the next day that the MOI was not ready to take up such a task, he was supported by the deputy minister responsible for the Afghan National Police (ANP) who would primarily take over the security effort and some 21 members of their respective staffs. They were unemployed the very same day and escorted by armed guards from the ministry again by Presidential order.

The international community that is working in Afghanistan took several days to respond, giving the Karzai government tepid support for the idea but questioning the timeline and the capacity of the ANP. ISAF did the same as did the US Embassy and NATO (all of whom use PSC’s to protect facilities, personnel and convoys). As they were making public statements of support, frantic meetings were being held with representatives of the largest public and private corporations conducting business in Afghanistan looking to develop a common response but before that response could be delivered a British firm called Blue Hackle was allegedly caught attempting to ship non-registered weapons on a flight departing Kabul for one of the provinces. They were immediately given 24 hrs to cease all operations and turn over all their equipment. While the panic ensued and other companies began taking their personnel and contracts on to ensure their clients were protected, the truth came out, Blue Hackle Afghan personnel were arrested after dropping off 2 expatriates at the airport that were flying out of the country on a leave rotation. When they were taken to the police station they were separated from their landcruiser. When the deputy country manager showed up, he was shown a vehicle with several unregistered AK’s in the back. The sacrificial lamb had been found and the message was sent that Karzai was serious. A few days later, the US government intervened and Blue Hackle’s license was reinstated and they continue to perform on their US government contracts only forcing them to fire 60% of their staff.

In the bigger picture it begs the question, are PSC’s a useful force multiplier keeping deployed troops available for offensive operations and freeing them from convoy escort, basic static guard duties and the protection of reconstruction redevelopment and humanitarian orientated civilians or are they the evil mercenaries that the incident in Baghdad would seem to suggest?

First what is a PSC? Well it’s many things with many companies providing different services but in general it can be broken down into two categories, you have locally owned companies that provide static armed guards who protect facilities and those who protect convoy’s of goods, then you have the International companies (primarily British and American owned) that provide a full suite of services that include, those services in first category plus personal security details (PSD), information services, secure guest houses, close protection, security assessments, training and secure logistics and medical support. They are normally staffed with a mixture of expatriates from Western countries, third country nationals such as former British Army Gurkha’s, and local nationals. In every case the difference between a PSC and a mercenary army is very clear the PSC’s can only participate in defensive protective operations. In no way shape or form can a PSC participate in offensive operations.

The oxford dictionary defines a mercenary as “a soldier, who will fight for any country or group that offers payment. A case could certainly be made and often is, that any fighting be it defensive or offensive in nature is fighting and therefore mercenary in nature, however this definition taken at face value means every Canadian who served in the US or British military is a mercenary, something that’s hard to accept…stretched even further it could even include those who fight for their birth countries therefore I believe a better definition is the more traditional understanding of what a mercenary is; a person who fights strictly for money without regard for the cause or the legalities of the group they are fighting for.

Are PSC’s necessary, again a case can be made that outsourcing tasks formerly performed by military troops is immoral but I believe it’s practical and while the industry continues to need regulatory reform is absolutely essential if you wish to continue with an all volunteer force. There is absolutely no reason a well trained and equipped US Army infantryman should be standing in a guard tower at a military base in Kuwait or even in Iraq. There is absolutely no reason a well trained and equipped Marine should be guarding the entrance to an Embassy. These combat troops need to be available to close with and destroy the enemy which is their primary mission. When I was the project manager of the local guard force protecting the US Embassy in Kabul we provided the protection necessary to the old Embassy, the new Embassy and the USAID compound which freed up a company of Marines to do what Marines do best, go hunt America’s enemies. This Marine company was about to become a tied down Marine Battalion (800 men) who needed logistical support, medical support etc as the Embassy grounds quickly grew and expanded across the street to encompass the USAID effort and that was a foolish waste of military resources so enter a 450 man self contained private force that came trained, equipped and self sustaining. It consisted of, western expatriates, former British army Gurkha’s and local nationals allowing Embassy and USAID staff to go about their business with freedom and safety taken care of. The cost to the government in overall dollars was cheaper and whenever ever a position was no longer required the cost disappeared instantly with no residual costs like a pension and no start up training costs. We followed Department of State rules of engagement and it was made very clear that any form of unprofessional behaviour would lead to termination without any form of redress.

President Karzai’s decree is unattainable and will in reality drive reconstruction and aid agency dollars out of Afghanistan if fully implemented as issued. Several issues jump up immediately, first the ANP is not an organization that is trained equipped or trustworthy enough to provide the protection necessary to convince most international companies and their insurance providers that it’s safe enough to do business here, second a legal change would have to be made by Congress to allow USAID to use security funds to pay the ANP or Afghan National Army (ANA) which is currently an illegal use of aid dollars. Third, by channelling hundreds of millions of more money through the MOI for security you are only exacerbating the level of corruption that already exists within the Karzai government not fixing it. Karzai would have you believe that it’s the PSC’s that are bribing his governments officials and that is very true in some cases primarily as it relates to the 25 locally owned companies that are well known to pay bribes to warlords and even Taliban shadow ministers to ensure convoy’s are unmolested instead of having to defend those convoys but then again Karzai doesn’t have far to go to find the corruption, as his brother in law and his Defence ministers son are the owners of the two largest Afghan owned PSC’s and the largest providers of bribes in the industry yet he targets international companies for immediate closure.

The situation is fluid and much can change in short order but the realist approach is something the industry has been begging for over the past nine years as it matured into its current form. It’s time for the major players to come together and not just attempt to self regulate with trade organizations such as the American International Peace Operations Association but to work with Western governments and the governments of host nations to ensure we have common standards, uniforms, equipment, weapons and training as well as laws that ensure that those operators who screw up and run afoul of not just common sense ethics and moral issues but commit crimes understand that they will be prosecuted in their home nations or even in the host country depending on the crime committed. If a financial manager is committing fraud against a US based company it makes no sense to prosecute him in Iraq but if an operator kills a local nation outside of the rules of engagement then he should be prosecuted by the host county in accordance with its laws.

A well regulated Private Security industry is essential if we’re ever to get past the Blackwater or mercenary stigma that is not going away regardless of the efforts of some many good people but just as the actions of a few criminals at the Abu Ghraib prison should not be a reflection on every US service member who conducted themselves properly in Iraq, the actions of a few members of one PSC should not become the rallying cry to disband what has become a very useful and very necessary service.