This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
Christophe Bellens is a policy advisor at the European Parliament. He completed two MS degrees from the University of Antwerp in History (2017) and International Relations (2018). His thesis focused on the use of Private Military and Security Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. He can be found on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/christophe-bellens/ and on Twitter @ChristosBellens. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: The use of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC) by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and its consequences on military effectiveness in a counterinsurgency.
Date Originally Written: May 6, 2019.
Date Originally Published: July 15, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article considers from the perspective of the United States government what options are on the table in the use private military forces. Decision makers have three possibilities, explained by their effectiveness in Iraq or Afghanistan, for a future PMSC-strategy.
Background: Since the start of the ‘Global War on Terror’, U.S. government organizations such as the Department of Defense (DoD), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State (DoS) have contracted PMSCs to manage security risks. The employees of these corporations perform duties that until recently were fulfilled by military members, such as the protection of key personnel, convoys and sites. Due to a reduction in troop numbers and an environment where privatization was heavily favored, PMSCs became a vital component of counterinsurgency. Despite their importance, planners often overlook the role of these contractors. The two cases of Iraq and Afghanistan offer three pathways to reach the envisioned political, tactical, operational and strategic objectives during counterinsurgency.
Significance: Private security contractors are part of contemporary small wars. In 2010, around 30,479 contractors worked for the DoD in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the DoS and USAID employed around 1850 and 3770 security contractors respectively in Afghanistan alone. Hence, per 1 security contractor 3.7 U.S. military members were deployed in Afghanistan in 2010. As a vital component of the security environment, they strongly influenced the outcome of the counterinsurgency.
Option #1: The US employs mainly security contractors from outside the host state as in Iraq. Between Q3 2008 and Q4 2013, 90% of the private security contractors were non-Iraqi citizens.
Risk: Major potential drawbacks of employing non-native contractors exist in the political and strategic dimensions. PMSCs are there to protect their clients, not to win the hearts and minds of the population. This client protection focus led to a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’-policy vis-à-vis potential threats. During the ‘Nisour Square’-shooting seventeen Iraqi civilians were killed. The worldwide public outcry that followed, worsened relations between the Iraqi government and the U.S. Insurgents gladly used this outcry against the lawless look-alike U.S. military members. Insurgents later released a video named ‘bloody contracts’ bemoaning the abuse, aggression and indiscriminate killing by U.S. contractors.
Foreign nationality (especially British or U.S. citizens) make contractors a valuable target for insurgents. During the 2004 Fallujah incident the non-American truck drivers were able to escape as the insurgents focused on what they imagined were agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, the convoy was rushed and understaffed by the PMSC to show how quick they could perform contract obligations. After a video of their bodies being paraded through the streets hit the news, U.S. President George W. Bush favored immediate military retaliation. The First Battle of Fallujah ended in an operational failure and shifted the focus away from the strategic goal of strengthening the Iraqi government.
Gain: These PMSCs were often well equipped. Their arsenal existed of a variety of small arms, machine guns and shotguns in addition with grenades, body armor and encrypted radio communication. Their vehicles ranged from local undercover secondhand cars to military-style high mobility multi-wheeled vehicles. Blackwater even had eight Boeing Little Bird helicopters in Baghdad. The personnel operating this equipment often had a law enforcement or military background. In addition, contractors for the DoS had to undergo 164 hours of training in protective detail. Hence, experienced foreigners are likely to demonstrate the necessary skills to ensure the successful completion of the assigned tasks.
Option #2: The U.S. employs mainly local contractors as in Afghanistan. Ninety percent of the private security contractors between Q3 2008 and Q4 2013 were Afghan citizens.
Risk: Eighty percent of the Afghan contractors were former militiamen or part of an existing armed group. While this often provided valuable combat experience, it was a potential security hazard. Consequently, foreigners protected high-profile targets. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s use of the PMSC Dyncorp security detail reinforced the image for many Afghans that he was a U.S. pawn. The former militiamen often lacked the ability to read or write, let alone speak a foreign language. This only reinforced the lack of integration with allied forces.
While problems with equipment did exist as the contractor normally was obliged to bring their own aging gun (AK47, AMD-65, PKM and RPK), studies show that a PMSC had 3.47 firearms per contractor. The problem here is the lack of disarmament and demobilization by legitimizing existing armed groups. Consequently, the Afghan state couldn’t create a monopoly on violence.
Gain: A major gain, among giving locals an instant job and income, is the use of local knowledge and connections. The downside, however, is the potential to insert oneself into local rivalries and even fuel conflict by starting competition over a contract.
Option #3: The U.S. helps to create a public company in the host state that offers protection services. An example being the creation of the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) in 2010.
Risk: In the beginning, the APPF lacked equipment and had to be trained by PMSCs. Customers lamented the slow reaction of the APPF. The force was mainly based in Kabul where they offered their services. If they managed to offer their services in the periphery, the gain of using local contractors, such as their local knowledge and connections was lost.
Secondly, the creation of a public company gives a -potentially corrupt- host leadership indirectly incentives to let some level of threat exist in its territory. The public company -and hence the state- would lose income if the security environment improves.
Gain: Compared to giving contracts to local warlords, the APPF-system reduces the risk of financing and legitimizing local organized crime and insurgent groups.
Moreover, such a force can greatly improve the integration in the overall force due to centralization. In addition, in a state of emergency, the public enterprise can be used for the public good.
Other Comments: None.
 Bellens, Christophe, Antwerp. (2018). “De impact van de uitbesteding aan Private Military and Security Companies op de militaire doeltreffendheid van de COIN-campagnes in Irak en Afghanistan”, 18 & 60-62.
 S.N. (2008), “IAI Documentary Exposes Blackwater’s Crimes in Iraq”, CBSnews. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/iai-documentary-exposes-blackwaters-crimes-in-iraq/
 S.N. (2007), “Blackwater says guards were betrayed by Iraqi forces on 2004 mission”, Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/blackwater-says-guards-were-betrayed-iraqi-forces-2004-mission-103555
 Isenberg, David (2008) “Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq”, Praeger Security International, 31.
 Joras, Ulrike, and Adrian Schuster, editors. (2008). “Private Security Companies and Local Populations: An Exploratory Study of Afghanistan and Angola”, Swisspeace, 13, 33-34.
 Small Arms Survey, Geneva. (2011). Small Arms Survey 2011: States of Security (Small Arms Survey). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 15.
 See the case of Shindand airbase in: McCain, John. (2010). “Inquiry into the Role and Oversight of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan”: Congressional Report: DIANE Publishing.
 Bellens, Christophe. (2018). “De impact van de uitbesteding aan Private Military and Security Companies op de militaire doeltreffendheid van de COIN-campagnes in Irak en Afghanistan”, 23 & 33-34.