The Modern Usage of Private Military Companies and Private Security Companies in Zones of Conflict

Hamza is an MA student currently studying War Studies. In this article, he examines the asset that PMCs and PSCs represent for state and non-state actors as well as considering the political and social risks they can entail.

In his 2019 published book ‘Goliath: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars. And What We Need to Do About It’, Sean McFate, a former private military contractor and currently a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, explained that contracting is integrated into today’s American way of war, enjoying bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats in the White House . According to McFate, the United States’ (US) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan revitalized the market of Private Military Companies (PMCs): more than 50% of military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were contractors during 2007-2018, according to a US Congressional Research Service report . Such usage carried the other effect of legitimising the use of private force for states and even non-state actors. In doing so, the United States resurrected contracting warfare, a type of conflict that is imitated by other clients of this market – ranging from states and multi-national corporations to terrorist groups .

The two types of private entities that will be discussed in this article are PMCs and Private Security Companies (PSCs). According to a joint report from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), on the one hand, PMCs primarily offer unarmed or armed assistances to supplant or reinforce state armies. On the other hand, PSCs mainly provide services to actors from the private sector and protect businesses or property from criminal activity. However, these entities can both be engaged into active combat situations and identified in geographical areas of conflict .

Why do non-state actors or even states employ these types of private assets in the first instance?
In the case of states with an all-volunteer military, the need to outsource military operations could result from issues relating to lack of recruitment into the armed forces. McFate argued that the U.S. policy makers were left with three choices in the need to sustain two long wars (Iraq and Afghanistan): withdraw and abandon the fight to the terrorist groups, which was not acceptable; implement a military draft that would translate to political suicide; or hire contractors to fill the void on the ground. The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations went with the third option .
Moreover, contractors and PMCs can be strategically cost-efficient for a state. By outsourcing certain military capacities such as logistics, governments can save a part of the budget for investment in other means . They can be cheaper than the armed forces. The Congressional Budget Office, a watchdog agency in the US, noted back in 2008 that an operating an infantry battalion during war costs $110 million a year, compared to a private military unit adds up to $99 million .
Furthermore, PMCs offer the element of plausible deniability for a government, conducting foreign policy by proxy. The lack of democratic accountability and political control caused by the unsubstantial transparency of these companies, coupled with the difficulty of monitoring their activities, allows governments to deny the state’s support to PMCs operations on the ground . Additionally, states using PMCs as proxies on the ground in zones of conflict can hide the total cost of a war. This enables governments to still conduct foreign policy in the context of unpopular wars domestically .
In the case of fragile states, lacking control over the whole extent of its territory due to prolonged conflicts with an insurgency or terrorist group, PMCs can be seen as a means to reconquer pockets of violence . This scenario is more likely in instances where the armed forces of a state need better training in dealing with unconventional threats or lack professionalism due to corruption inside the military institutions.

In the case of non-state actors such as private multi-national corporations (and by extent states), PMCs and even PSCs offer the advantage of a legal freeway. There are no binding international laws or human rights treaties that specifically regulate private military or security contractors (PMSCs). There is a debate about how to interpret and apply accountability for actions performed by contractors from PMSCs: does the responsibility fall to the host state that hired them, to the state where the PMSCs is registered, or the state by which they were contracted that is neither the host nor home registered state? And that question appears before even involving non-state actors that hire PMSCs. The general difficulty in enforcing international law engenders a legal grey zone on accountability . PMSCs are regulated mostly at the state level only, meaning domestically. When they work in non-combat situations abroad, they continue to operate in a legal grey zone . There comes also the question of who is going to physically arrest PMSCs in a war zone. McFate points out that international law is diplomacy: they are either diplomatic custom or nonbinding treaties between states, it does not matter if you ignore them when dealing with the market of privatized force .
More importantly for non-state actors, the decision to hire PMCs or PSCs can be due to a lack of trust in the host countries’ armed forces and its capacity to protect assets . The example of private Chinese companies in Sudan and South Sudan hiring Chinese-registered PSCs to protect resources and facilities on the ground demonstrates that argument.
However, there are political and social risks linked to the usage of PMCs and PSCs.
The first political risk is that these privatized forces undermine the sovereignty of states as the sole entity having the monopoly on legitimate use of violence in its territory . For developed countries this can become a destabilizing factor : PMCs and PSCs can be assets for neo-colonial gains by other states and private companies wanting to secure access to natural resources through coercive means, therefore undermining state sovereignty . Second, the lack of transparency on PMCs use by states undermines the idea of democratic and political control. This enables governments to conduct foreign policy by proxy and cover up the actions of states due to PMCs plausible deniability .
The social risk is that PMCs and PSCs only offer short-term security solutions by not addressing the root causes of conflict , such as the lack of economic development or social grievances related to a government’s policies.

To illustrate examples of modern usage of PMCs and PSCs with the related risks, the article will examine four cases. Two of them, Russia in Syria and China in Sudan, will demonstrate PMCs and PSCs closely working with registered state (where they were founded) in abroad projects for private companies. Then one with a PMC working for the Nigerian government in fighting Boko Haram will illustrate PMCs providing service to fragile states. Finally, the example of Malhama Tactical, a PMC providing services to terrorist organizations in Syria, will underline how adaptable and wide the market for privatized force can become.

McFate argues that multinational corporations, notably those in the extractive industries, are the biggest new clients of PMCs. He gives the example of Russian mining and oil companies hiring mercenaries in Syria, such as Evro Polis that employed the Wagner Group (a Russian PMC), to capture oil fields from ISIS in central Syria .
According to an article by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Wagner Group is a PMC owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin . Evro Polis is a firm also linked to Prigozhin and signed a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which stipulates that the Russian company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants, according to AP news agency that obtained a copy of the contract . Thus, Wagner would secure the economic interests of Evro Polis. But thus far, it only involves private entities linked to a private actor.
What is interesting to note, is how a PMC such as Wagner enters the equation of becoming a proxy foreign policy tool for the state of Russia in aiding securing abroad interests in the context of Syria. As discussed, PMCs can become tools for states in that it allows for plausible deniability from governments. According to Sukhankin, Russian PMCs started as a force tasked with solving narrow geopolitical objectives but then began taking on broader economic issues, principally related to energy and natural resources . They have broader tasks for Russian administration than standard PMCs found in the West, in the sense that they are coordinated on the ground by Russian intelligence and take control over “gray zones” in order to create “zones of artificial stability”. The PMC’s mission is to exploit natural resources and gain partial political control over an area, with the existing political regime keeping central authority to preserve the legitimacy of the territory . Therefore, Russia can demonstrate plausible deniability but still be a party to the conflict through its PMCs on the ground. And since these PMCs are supported by private actors and companies that finance them, the state is removed from the burden of supporting these forces .
This example of a Russian PMC in Syria demonstrates the political risk of undermining the sovereignty of the Syrian state having the monopoly of violence. Consequently, this leads to the Russian state employing a PMC as a proxy tool for foreign policy and obtain neo-colonial gains on Syrian territory: to secure access to the natural resources of Syrian oil and gas. Additionally, the Russian government can domestically create a lack of transparency on its usage of PMCs in Syria, through plausible deniability, which undermines the idea of democratic and political control.

In a similar fashion to Russia, China through its foreign and economic policy of the Belt Road Initiative has encouraged Chinese international corporations to hire domestically registered Chinese PSCs to safeguard assets overseas .These Chinese PSCs often operate with the implicit support of the Chinese government, needing to project its power abroad without involving the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). Moreover, these PSCs are mostly staffed by former PLA officers with indirect ties to Chinese authorities .There is a financial incentive to hire Chinese PSCs rather than international (principally western) PMCs for private Chinese enterprises present abroad: Contractors estimate that a team of 12 Chinese guards might cost the same as a single British or US guard. Additionally, there are also the factors of language and cultural barriers, in combination of pressure from Chinese government to hire these PSCs .
The example of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNCP) contracting DeWe Security to protect its assets in the middle of South Sudan’s civil war is notable . China is the largest trading partner of both Sudan and South Sudan due to massive oil exportation. Both Sudanese governments are aiming to make use of their strategic location near the Maritime Silk Road to attract Chinese investment . Thus, the geopolitical and economical weight in this context leads Chinese PSCs such as DeWe security to fill the gap of projecting force abroad for Beijing in the region. It is important to note that Chinese PSCs’ activities overseas depend on the host country’ regulations on foreign PSCs. Both Sudan and South Sudan lack any meaningful regulation of the kind.
While the security of oil installations in South Sudan was for a few years safeguarded by the country’s military, Chinese firms operating in the region took further steps in protection by hiring Chinese PSCs due to precedence of kidnappings of Chinese workers in rich-oil regions back in 2008 and 2012 in Sudan .
In July 2016, the PSC Beijing DeWe Security Services (DeWe) was called in to protect the employees of its main client, CNPC, and to help evacuate 330 civilians to Nairobi, Kenya, after a shooting started between warring local factions in South Sudanese capital of Juba. Thus, a Chinese PSC found itself involved in a combat situation on foreign soil to protect assets of a Chinese firm. Moreover, DeWe is the main provider in the region of South Sudan and claims to have established a regional office in South Sudan, announcing plans to build a permanent security camp in the country – the first overseas private security facility of its kind established by a Chinese company .
The actions of DeWe, establishing a permanent security camp and being the main provider of security for Chinese companies in South Sudan, undermine the state having the monopoly of violence and only reinforces the idea of China having neo-colonial gains in South Sudan. It demonstrates the political risk of a state being perceived as weak by not having total control of the legitimate use of violence in its territory.

The case of South African Specialized Task, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP) in Nigeria demonstrates how PMCs can provide services to fragile states with pockets of non-existing central authority.
STTEP was secretly contracted by the Nigerian government in December 2014 to assist the fight against Boko Haram. Nigerian security forces had been largely ineffective on the ground in countering Boko Haram. Boko Haram’s mobile insurgency warfare utilizing hit-and-run strategies and the ability to hide in the vast forest areas of Northeast Nigeria rendered the military response of the conventional Nigerian army ineffective . The combination of a lack of intelligence, widespread corruption in the military, lack of payments and lack of professional skills made the recipe for inept response against Boko Haram . In the short period STTEP was contracted for, the PMC was argued to have brought a form of efficiency in the fight against Boko Haram. The PMC brought a set of new tactics to the armed forces in combination of the advanced technology used by the PMC: experienced personnel and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships performing search-and-destroy missions. They drove out Boko Haram in a few weeks, something the Nigerian military could not accomplish in six years according to McFate .According to Nielsen’s article, STTEP brought a group of experienced soldiers, who conducted counterinsurgency warfare on the African continent since the 1980s. In addition, the soldiers received proper payment as well as benefits. STTEP also supplied an air capacity capable of transporting, evacuating and supplying troops, and conducting air-to-ground combat support . Moreover, STTEP contributed with a counterinsurgency doctrine named relentless pursuit. It consists of confusing, dispersing, all while maintaining pressure on the enemy through small mobile attacks, forcing it to withdraw, and then relentlessly pursuing the enemy thus exhausting it and facilitating its annihilation. The pursuit was done day and night using helicopters to transport troops ahead of the enemy, who then took up the pursuit letting the present pursuers rest .Arguably, the tactical PMCs’ effectiveness against Boko Haram in north eastern Nigeria created an environment more favourable to uphold elections in the region .
On another note, STTEP in Nigeria illustrates the similar political risk of South Sudan and Chinese PSCs: a state being perceived as weak by not having total control of the legitimate use of violence in its territory. Additionally, it has been argued that STTEP did not entirely solve the conflict against Boko Haram because it only offered a military solution. It did not address the root causes of conflict in Nigeria and for Boko Haram’s existence: economic and social development, popular trust or religious recognition .

Nigeria exemplifies how a state can become the client of a PMC in fighting a terrorist group. However, terrorist groups can become clients of PMCs as well, exemplified by the case of Malhama Tactical in Syria.
Malhama Tactical is the world’s first jihadi private military contractor (PMC) and consulting firm led by an ex-Russian special air forces soldier . The group is based in Uzbekistan and provides a large range of services to only jihadi extremists: training, manufacturing equipment, conducting strategic reconnaissance of potential targets or performing direct terrorist attacks. They provided these services mostly in Syria for the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group) and for the Turkistan Islamic Party (Syrian branch of a Uighur extremist group in China) . An example of training from this PMC is how it helped the Al-Qaeda affiliated group HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) to form an estimated 10 highly-trained ‘commando’ units within jihadist factions fighting under its hierarchy: Malhama Tactical provided special tactical training to HTS’s elite units, known as Asaib al-Mawt (‘Death League’) and Asaib al-Hamra (‘Red Bandanas’) .
What is worth underlining is the ability of how such a group capitalized on the international private military security market to create a niche market in the form of a PMC offering services only to extremist jihadi. Malhama owns a YouTube and Facebook page showcasing free online guides for jihadis, covering improvised grenade construction, weapon cleaning, room clearing, and urban combat, among other skills. There are also online training sessions on subjects such as battlefield first aid, the use of weapons, such as RPG-7s; hand signal systems for urban combat; and introductions on how to conduct ambushes. Some of the training is costly which excludes some jihadi groups from the demand: the RPG rounds Malhama uses in its practice sessions are estimated to cost around $800 each on the black market leaving most jihadi group clientele in Syria to only demand training on acrobatics, and basic marksmanship . The PMCs direct income is from training fighters, but also relies on crypto currency funding (such as Bitcoin) or even online donations. The group has made numerous fund-raising appeals through diverse social media platforms: Twitter, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube and Russian social-networking sites like VKontakte and Odnoklassniki .
The example of Malhama Tactical demonstrates how a PMC can be formed through the use of social media and modern funding methods to create a market that capitalizes on an ideology. Arguably, they essentially monetized jihadi terrorism. Malhama Tactical also illustrates the political risk of PMCs becoming a tool for only perpetuating violence for non-state actors against state actors. A main policy of Malhama Tactical is to fight against the Assad regime in Syria and will offer its services to any terrorist groups willing to pay for those services. By extension, it undermines the whole idea of the Westphalian order: states being the main actors for waging war through the command of conventional armed forces .
As discussed, the clientele for the modern international private military security market is broad and their usage wide. From states using PMCs or PSCs to aid in foreign policy by proxy such as Russia in Syria or China in South Sudan, to states using PMCs to establish central authority in pockets of violence or against a terrorist group such as STTEP in Nigeria, or even terrorist groups themselves hiring PMCs to have access to privatized forms of services. However, this state of affairs brings political and social risks: states’ sovereignty being undermined by not having the monopoly of violence, the lack of democratic and political control on these private forces, the perpetuation of neo-colonial gains by other means, the potential upset of the Westphalian order and the risk of not addressing the root cause of a conflict.

McFate argued that despite all these forms of privatized forces, their questionable legality is not an obstacle to their use and demand by non-state and state actors. He goes so far as to claim that any a group or individual with enough financial means could hire its own privatized force for any purpose, should it be economical, political or ideological. The market is to stay for the time being in McFate’s view . Such prospects could raise the question of determining if there is any effective way to create a binding legislation body overseeing international PMCs and PSCs? Will states even agree to create such binding legislation? One can even go as so far to ask if PMCs and PSCs will gradually replace conventional armed forces as tools of foreign policy?
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