Why U.S. Reliance on Military Contractors in Iraq May Have Created a Monster

Maxim interviews U.S. national security policy expert Sean McFate about the future of private armies.

It’s impossible to have an honest discussion about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without acknowledging the roles private military contractors, or security firms, like Blackwater, KBR and Triple Canopy, played—and continue to play—in those conflicts. As a former soldier, I’ve reaped the benefits of their work. They did our laundry, prepared our meals, guarded our chow halls, and pulled security for civilian supply convoys. They also did their fair share of bloodletting. “Mercenaries have always existed, but were driven underground in the 19th and 20th centuries,” says Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary. McFate is a professor of U.S. national security policy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, but he’s not your typical academic. An ex-U.S. Army paratrooper, McFate spent several years in Africa “raising small armies for U.S. interests” as an employee of DynCorp International, “a company that provides international security services.” In other words, McFate was a mercenary. “After the Cold War ended, there were some exceptional mercenary companies, like Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. But the U.S.’s demand for private military service in Iraq and Afghanistan took it from a million to a billion dollar industry.” Which raises a big question: as the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East dwindles, however slowly, where will these companies go? As McFate points out, “billion dollar industries don’t just evaporate overnight.”

How did the United States come to rely so heavily on private military contractors / security firms during the Iraq and Afghan wars?

The driver of the U.S.’s use of the industry is its desire for bloodless wars, at least American blood. Using contractors allows the U.S. to remain a global power without having too much skin in the game, literally. No one cares about dead contractors, many of whom aren’t even American.

With the U.S. military presence in the Middle East decreasing what happens to these companies?

So, Americans think of Blackwater and Nisour Square in 2007 and they think the U.S. is out of Iraq and thus this industry has somehow gone away. What really happened is that America stopped getting involved, and the industry started looking for new clients. So the industry in the last couple of years has really proliferated and globalized, and we’re seeing mercenaries popping up in strange places.

Like where?

Nigeria recently hired a bunch of mercenaries to go defeat Boko Haram, which they did. Six years and the Nigerian army couldn’t do it, but a couple of weeks of mercenaries from South Africa and, yes, they’re gone or they’ve moved into Chad. Putin is allegedly using Chechen mercenaries in the Ukraine. We’re seeing all sorts of ex-Special Forces soldiers from Latin America showing up in the Gulf States. We’re also seeing oil companies use the firms, as well as shipping companies. The industry is definitely proliferating; it’s just that people are not seeing it. There are a lot of contractors in Erbil, Iraq guarding oil infrastructure. We don’t know who they are, and they’re from all over the world. Some of them are local Iraqis, but they’re not like cool Americans who stayed behind. They’re from somewhere else.

As a U.S. Army combat veteran, how easy would it be for me to return to the battlefield as a gun-for-hire?

I think for a seasoned soldier— a seasoned professional—you’d be able to go to some of the bigger companies out there. They’re operating all over the world.

How do you see the U.S. utilizing these companies in the fight against ISIS?

What I can see happening is that the U.S. doesn’t really count contractors as boots on the ground, nor do Americans really care as much about dead contractors as they care about dead Marines, so I can see the Administration or the Department of Defense surging two or three thousand contractors to do a training and equip mission for the Iraq security forces. That way they can keep the boots on the ground number low, and contractors are very good at training and equipping.

Update: Tom McCuin, Director of Communications for Constellis Group, a private security service provider, wrote to Maxim to clarify that the companies that comprise Constellis Group, including ACADEMI, Edinburgh International, Triple Canopy and Olive Group, are not mercenary groups. He writes: “First, among the criteria is that to be considered a mercenary, an individual must be ‘specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict.’ Companies like Triple Canopy do not do this; we work in high-threat environments to protect people and property (for governments, corporations, and NGOs), to train indigenous forces at the direction of, or with the express permission of, the U.S. Government, or to provide other logistical support…nothing more. Any fighting our employees do is purely defensive, and something that our clients pay us to help them avoid.”