For the past few years, private military contractors have out numbered US troops in Afghanistan despite a doubling in the size of the US occupation under the Obama administration. There were more contractors than US troops in Iraq a year ago, but the number of contractors dropped slightly this year to 120,000 – equal to the number of US troops. These contractors often provide “logistical” support as cooks, truck drivers, in warehouse workers, etc. Even the actual “guns for hire” are not often used in offensive operations but provide bodyguards, security for embassies and private businesses and even guards for military bases.
The October 6 New York Times reported that the US plans to vastly expand its embassy in Islamabad, and create a consulate in Peshawar, the capital of the Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. Providing security for these projects are large numbers of contractors from Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp. According to the NYT, “the Pakistani military and the intelligence agencies are concerned that DynCorp is being used by Washington to develop a parallel network of security and intelligence personnel within Pakistan” and “there have been a series of complaints by Islamabad residents who said they had been ‘roughed up’ by hefty, plainclothes American men bearing weapons”. The NYT also reported on August 21 that at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Xe contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 1100 kilogram laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by CIA officers. They also provide security at the covert bases.
According to an October 16 Press TV report, the Pentagon has outsourced a new military intervention into Somalia: “Michigan-based CSS Global Inc. secured the contract under the plea of ‘fighting terrorism and piracy’ and ‘protecting’ Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.” In the US itself, Blackwater was contracted to patrol the streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Xe Services is also a leading trainer of police, private security and military within the US.
These private security firms perform tasks that would in previous wars would have been performed by uniformed military personnel. This has allowed US politicians and the supportive corporate media to fudge the figures when it comes to the size of occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September the Obama administration was able to increase the number of US combat troops in Afghanistan by 14,000 without announcing any increase in overall troop numbers by withdrawing 14,000 uniformed logistic personnel whose duties were taken over by civilian contractors.
Historical use of mercenaries
The use of mercenaries in differing forms predates capitalism. Early class societies were ruled by warlords who maintained their rule through a privileged warrior class. In times of war and territorial expansion, ruling classes used their accumulated wealth to employ the idle warriors of other societies not directly involved in the conflict. One of the earliest records of the use of mercenaries is from 484 BCE, when the Persian empire employed Greek mercenaries to assist its invasion of Greece. All the ancient empires supplemented their regular armies with mercenaries. In Europe this practice continued under feudalism and was common during the emergence of capitalism.
As European states began carving up the world and trade wars took on a global scale, there emerged a company that makes modern private military companies look like rank amateurs. The London-based East India Company started on December 31, 1600, with a charter, granted by Queen Elizabeth I, that awarded the company a monopoly of trade with all countries to the east of the Cape of Good Hope and to the west of the Strait of Magellan.
The English East India Company traded mainly in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, tea, and opium, but through its own private army and navy, it helped establish the British Empire in South Asia. The company gradually reduced its trading operations and turned solely to conquest, assuming rule and administrative functions over more and more of the Indian subcontinent. Company rule in India began in 1757 and lasted until 1858, when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the UK government assumed direct administration of India and absorbed the company’s 24,000 troops into the British army. The company itself was finally dissolved in 1874.
The French and Dutch set up their own East Indies companies during this same period. In the Western Hemisphere, all the major European powers employed naval mercenaries known as privateers, who were essentially pirates contracted by a nation-state to disrupt the merchant shipping of its rivals. As the 19th century ended, the new imperialist states had gained enough wealth to afford large standing armies and navies. They no longer needed to supplement their military forces with mercenaries.
To maintain this advantage over smaller rivals, the idea was propagated that mercenaries were unsavoury and amoral. This went hand in hand with capitalist nationalism and the idea that for working people there was no greater honour than to fight “for your country” as a member of its national military forces. Many countries, including the US, Britain and Australia, outlawed their citizens becoming mercenaries. They became restricted to bit players in smaller conflicts during the Cold War.
Necessary for US imperialism
At the start of the 21st century, imperialist capitalism needs the widespread use of mercenaries once again. To overcome their bad reputation, these new mercenary forces have been re-branded as “private military companies” (PMCs) and individual mercenaries as “contractors”. The renewed outsourcing of war to privateers is due to sheer economic and political necessity as US imperialism struggles to maintain its global dominance without mass conscription into its official military forces.
The November 14 New York Times reported that White House budgeting uses $1 million per year per soldier in Afghanistan as a working number. The figure would greatly increase without contractors, who aren’t clothed, fed or equipped by the government. Nor does the government have to pay them when they leave the war zone. Contractors do not become veterans, so the government does not have to pay benefits or provide services that it does for its own troops. While the common image of contractors is of highly paid people from rich First World countries, the majority are drawn from poor Third World countries like Fiji and El Salvador or for the poorer countries of Eastern Europe. They receive high wages in comparison to wages paid in their home countries, but for the PMCs, the US and its imperialist allies, they are a cheap source of security and service task labour.
Another advantage for the imperialist occupying powers is the reduction in political costs. If another contractor dies, there is no flag-draped coffin. If PMCs cut costs by supplying inadequate equipment, as some relatives of contractors killed in Iraq have tried to prove, there is no political scandal. Similarly, when PMCs do not provide for their injured employees. Probably the most concerning advantage is provided by “corporate confidentiality”. This can be greater than military secrecy and allow government agencies to hide all sorts of illegal practices from public scrutiny, based on the legal right of capitalist businesses to keep secrets from competitors. This is probably why Washington now entrusts one of its most sensitive weapons, Predator drones, to Xe Services.
Not a moral issue
There is no moral difference between contractors and those in uniform. On September 16, 2007, when Blackwater contractors murdered 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, many on the left held this incident up to show that it is wrong to use reckless and amoral mercenaries. This ignores the fact that the US military uses similar tactics in built-up areas, known as “free fire zones”. The Iraq Veterans against the War “Winter Soldier” forums over the past few years have heard hundreds of US veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan testify to the regular killing of civilians by US soldiers.
The use of PMCs in Iraq and Afghanistan should be challenged because they are an attempt to reduce the political costs of these occupations and because they hide the real size of the occupation forces. Their use should be opposed because they add to the risks of the working people they employ. During World War I, Scottish socialist and anti-war campaigner John Maclean told a Glasgow anti-war protest: “A bayonet is a weapon with a working man at either end.” This is true whether the “cannon fodder” in the imperialist war machines wear military insignia or a company logo.
[Hamish Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and one of the founders of Stand Fast – a group of veterans and military service people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For information about Stand Fast visit Stand Fast or phone 0401 586 923.]