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Efficacy of Private Military Contractors in Peace Operations

Module by: Nicholas Pascucci. E-mail the author

Summary: The Private Military Contracting field has experienced massive growth since the September 11th attacks. This essay explores how the contractors have been used in the past and how they can be used in peace- and nation-building operations in the future.


In the years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Private Military and Security industries have grown remarkably, garnering contracts in hotspots and warzones around the world in support of the interests of both nation states and private companies. Private Military Companies can be found in over 50 countries, operating in an industry that makes over one hundred billion dollars annually.1 Their increased use has sparked much controversy, and revelations regarding both the successes and failures of the industry raise questions about its role in moderating conflict worldwide. In an industry whose primary focus is providing military-related services in failed states and conflict areas, understanding the effects of their activities and presence in those areas is essential to being able to utilize them effectively in creating peace.

This paper seeks to identify the major issues and concerns surrounding the use of Private Military Contractors in establishing positive peace around the globe. It focuses on the methodology of PMC practice and how it may be modified to better suit the objectives of establishing peace. The intent is to answer a simple but far-reaching question: “To what extent is the use of Private Military Contractors beneficial or detrimental to creating lasting, positive peace?

A definition of what role a Private Contractor fills will be required; however, the broad scope of these roles means that any definition will hardly be all-inclusive. A Private Military Contractor can operate in many different roles in a conflict zone. The vast majority work in supporting functions. Of the nearly 180,000 contractors estimated to be working in Iraq, more than 80% are in jobs other than protection.2 They provide services, amenities and training that are required by militaries, and sometimes private companies, to operate in hostile foreign countries. These services range from providing food, moving supplies, and maintaining facilities to actual protection of fixed installations.

In contrast, it is the more romantic side of the industry that catches the public eye. As Madelaine Drohan puts it, “they’re sexy… there is that definite aspect about ‘mercenary’ that doesn’t always denote something very negative.”3 It is this characterization that applies to the remaining 20% of the Private Military Contractors currently operating in Iraq, those that run what are known as “Private Security Details”. Their active role in protection puts contractors who are engaged in PSDs in the line of fire, and as such their actions are more readily open to the public eye. However, the large scale of the work done by contractors, both in the open and behind the scenes, means that in order to create a comprehensive study one cannot simply focus on the dangerous aspect of their work but must consider as well the logistics roles they play in support of their clients.

The Modern Mercenary

The average person can’t distinguish between the private contractors sent out by companies such as Blackwater Worldwide and a modern mercenary. Historically, however, mercenaries differ from contractors in their motivations. This distinction is quite important when considering whether to utilize contractors, as the United Nations has declared the use of mercenaries illegal under international law.4 Unfortunately, the wording of its resolution on mercenaries is so vague that it is incredibly easy for companies to operate in what would commonly be considered “mercenary” activities and still be operating quasi-legally. The attitude held by the companies is perhaps most evident through their representation. As Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) puts it, “If you look at the UN definition of a mercenary, it’s a joke... and somebody said ‘if anyone’s ever convicted of being a mercenary under the UN law, they should be shot and their lawyer should be shot with them because they were incompetent.’”5 Despite the loopholes, the resolution does raise one key difference between private contractors and mercenaries: their motives.

What Motivates a PMC?

Contractors are well aware of this distinction. Cobus Claassens, whose worked for Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, describes his views as such: “Mercenary, to me, is somebody who goes and fights, and gets paid for it, for a cause that is not necessarily for his country or his nation.”6 By far the most visible tie between the modern mercenary and a private contractor is money. Whereas a Special Forces soldier working in Iraq might make $70,000 a year in the Army, a contractor with the same skill set working on a PSD could make nearly $200,000 a year.7 Whereas there is little demand for a military skill set in the civilian world, it is a prerequisite for working in the private security industry, leading many prior military personnel to the field.

On the other hand, many companies who work for recognized governments do so partly because of their desire to participate in a legitimate enterprise, supporting the operations of their chosen client. Part of what makes civilian contractors cringe at the thought of being called “mercenaries” is the connotation that they will do anything for money. For the vast majority of them, that is simply untrue; many of the people and companies who work in the private security industry carefully select the clients to whom they offer goods and services. Companies such as Blackwater Worldwide have been characterized as being made up of unfailingly patriotic Americans, who joined the company to support their country, albeit with a larger paycheck. This devotion to supporting a particular nation or cause and the moral distinctions that are made in that effort lead some companies to be very selective regarding which contracts they will accept.

What Can They Offer?

The heart and soul of the contracting business is to provide capabilities to one’s client. In the context of an operation to establish positive peace within a turbulent state, companies have two such capabilities that could be provided: Services and Security. These are the same two functions that are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan today; however, how they are utilized in operations for creating peace differs from when they are supporting a military operation. Whereas most of the companies currently operating in Iraq are there in support of the US military, in a peace operation the focus would be on supporting the people of the country. That difference is quite important; it shifts the paradigm from being one of fighting the citizenry to one of cooperating with them. As demonstrated by the massive bases in Iraq that have been established by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), there exists a capability to use private companies to conduct reconstruction on a massive scale. Food, housing, power, potable water, fuel, education, and recreational services can all be provided by a private contractor. Being able to deploy these services to a populace in need is far more important in establishing positive peace than supporting an army to forcefully impose order. The ability to establish a self-sustaining infrastructure by both construction and training local specialists is crucial to maintaining stability after the contractors leave. All that is required to harness this capability is a contract.

Who Represents Them?

The vast majority of Private Military Companies are small start-up firms just entering the industry and hoping to find a niche. Representation for these new companies in political circles is virtually non-existent, save for small-time lobbying by the individual companies. The larger firms, on the other hand, are primarily represented by the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), whose stated goal is to “promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the Peace and Stability Industry; [and] to engage in a constructive dialogue with policy-makers…”8. Some of the more prominent members, such as Triple Canopy, Blackwater Worldwide, KBR, Aegis, and ArmorGroup, have been awarded lucrative multimillion dollar contracts in Iraq by the United States government, contributing to the IPOA’s claim that the cost-effectiveness of contractors for specific missions such as bodyguarding or logistics far exceeds that of government agencies. The effectiveness of the IPOA in increasing contract rates for its member companies is debatable, but its use lies with its symbolic role as a unifying factor. While it does provide a united front for the industry, the group’s primary function is to provide political representation for the member companies; and as such, it does not exercise any real authority over them or their employees.

History of Private Military Company Practice

The history of the Private Military industry is difficult to define. Its borders are as transient as the definition of “mercenary”, and the fine line that separates them from private contractors. However, some events are more informative than others; and as such are briefly summarized to give background knowledge of contractor operations. Contractors have had a major impact on numerous areas of the world and acted in capacities ranging from support operations to training to direct action. Knowledge of where the industry has been utilized and to what effect is critical to forming a plan on how to use them in the future.

Rhodesia/South Africa

In 1980, after the long and bloody Rhodesian Bush War, Robert Mugabe and the newly-elected black majority government came to power in Zimbabwe Rhodesia. Numerous white soldiers, having fought a 16-year war with the ZANU forces led by Robert Mugabe, moved to South Africa to find a new home. “Independence… white soldiers don’t have a place to go anymore in the new, black-ruled Zimbabwe... they join the South African Defence Force; black government comes to South Africa, they set up private security companies: they set up Executive Outcomes.”9 South Africa became a haven for Private Security Companies. Men who felt threatened by the newly formed black governments in the surrounding nations flocked to South Africa to apply their only marketable skill set. Companies such as Executive Outcomes, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, and Omega Security Solutions all formed in South Africa and quickly began exporting their services to other African nations.

Sierra Leone

In what is most likely the best-known case of a military intervention carried out by a PMC, Executive Outcomes was hired by the government of Sierra Leone to help quell the Revolutionary United Front insurgency. The war between the existing government and the rebel forces was going badly; often there was little distinction between government and rebel soldiers, with many switching sides as the tides of the war shifted. Atrocities were committed by both sides. “It got to the point where the government of Sierra Leone was overturned by a group of military officers who felt that the war was going against them because of the government’s ineptitude.”10 Captain Valentine Strasser took power at age 25, and inherited a losing war from his predecessor. Realizing that his military was unable to defeat the rebels, Strasser hired Executive Outcomes to help him fight the war. In payment, he granted EO mining concessions in the diamond-rich areas of Sierra Leone; provided they could secure them for themselves. Utilizing their superior training, logistics and air support capabilities, a group of 150 Executive Outcomes employees brought a 15,000 strong rebel force to its knees in a year and a half. This impetus allowed the government to put an end to the war, which had cost tens of thousands of lives and fostered countless atrocities. As Robert Young Pelton remarked, “Sierra Leone is probably one of the few examples in which an extremely positive outcome occurred because foreign fighters came in, solved the problem, and then left peacefully.”

The Balkans

As Executive Outcomes was fighting the RUF in Sierra Leone, the war in the Balkans between the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians had progressed into a stalemate. Restricted by a UN arms embargo, the poorly-equipped and trained Croats were unable to mount an offensive into the Krajina region of Croatia, which had been seized by Bosnian Serbs during the Croat secession from Yugoslavia. As the war stagnated and hostilities mounted, the US policy towards the region repurposed in order to “bring the situation to an endgame.”11 To that end, the State Department and the Pentagon suggested that the Croatian government turn to the retired generals and senior NCOs that made up Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI). MPRI signed two separate contracts with the Croatian government: to provide both a reorganization of the Croatian military, and to design a “Democracy Transition Assistance Program” to help the nation adjust to a western-style government and military. According to MPRI, no provisions were made for military assistance beyond organizational advice.

However, in August 1995, the Croatian military launched a major offensive into the Krajina region, in violation of the UN cease-fire, named “Operation Storm”. Using NATO-style tactics, including combined arms and maneuver techniques, Operation Storm destroyed the Serbian resistance in less than 36 hours. The total victory of the Croatian forces and assistance provided by the Bosnian army ended the Croatian Civil War, and the Dayton Agreement was signed in November, 1995. Although MPRI denies having trained or planned with the Croats for combat operations, numerous observers have noted that the “dramatic overall improvement in Croat strategic and tactical skills over the same span is difficult to ignore” 12, and that “It was a textbook operation, though not a JNA textbook. Whoever wrote that plan of attack could have gone to any NATO staff college in North America or Western Europe and scored an A-plus.”13 According to Peter Singer, “this assessment is not surprising if MPRI was involved; its personnel were those who actually ‘wrote’ the textbook and ran the staff colleges.”14

Despite the military effectiveness of the operation, it resulted in more than 170,000 new refugees and numerous human rights violations. However, in the context of ending a brutal and at times genocidal civil war, these calculations are foggy at best. What is clear is that the influence of a modern private military consulting firm on a third-world army can be the organizing force required to professionalize a military, and that it can be done extremely quickly; however, the resulting imbalance of power can result in one ethnic, national or ideological group subjugating another.


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created what is quite possibly the most prolific and certainly the most public use of Private Contractors in recent history. Firms from across the spectrum of private military services are all present in Iraq, doing everything from providing food and housing for the US forces there (KBR), to training the new Iraqi military and police (DynCorp), to fulfilling security contracts for personal protection (Blackwater). Contracts and job opportunities in Iraq are so widespread that it has been described as the “Wild West” for contracting both by civilian analysts and contractors themselves. What is clear is that while the US efforts in Iraq would be impossible without the support of private contractors, what is supposed to be an efficient means of accomplishing a task has degraded to a monetary black hole. Corruption and waste are so widespread that millions of dollars from the United States government are unaccounted for, and tasks that companies have been hired to complete are left half-completed or undone. Numerous companies such as Aegis Defence Services, headed by Tim Spicer of the now-defunct Sandline International, have failed to meet numerous requirements of their contracts.

To compound this, government officials in Iraq and Afghanistan hold mixed feelings about the firms’ effectiveness on the ground. While Blackwater was responsible for protecting L. Paul Bremer, they were well-known for their aggressive driving and shooting tactics. However, several military and government officials have expressed the opinion that this behavior was due to their contractual obligation to protect Bremer at all costs. On the other hand, very few support the aggression with which Blackwater has been known to interact with the local populace. Videos posted on the internet showing Blackwater employees shooting at what seem to be innocent Iraqi civilians, as well as numerous other reports of unprovoked shootings have demonstrated that private contractors in Iraq are widely unaccountable for their actions. This situation is only exacerbated by the amnesty granted them under CPA Order 17 which removes them from the jurisdiction of Iraqi law.15 While attempts are being made to bring contractors under some form of jurisdiction (most notably the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000), no clear-cut code controlling contractors has been established.

A Framework for Peace

Ultimately, in order for a Private Military Company to be effective in creating positive peace, they need to be utilized in an organized fashion. Working as part of a larger plan, PMCs can support the overall goal of establishing peaceful conditions. Conversely, what has been demonstrated time and again is that when private contractors are put into action without clear-cut objectives they harm the overall ability of a peace operation to accomplish its objectives. While there are as many ways to go about creating the conditions that alleviate conflict as there are types of conflict, all of them share common goals, and there are certain areas in which private contractors might be the most useful. Playing into what Thomas Barnett calls the “System Administrator” role16, contractors can form an expeditionary force of sorts that handles nation-building in failed states, reducing the need for a government to commit military forces. This decreases the geopolitical risk of executing such an operation. By the same token, replacing the soldiers of a benevolent country with contractors creates its own problems. Oversight is crucial, and maintaining state-based control of the contractor force in accomplishing defined objectives is necessary in order to accomplish the mission completely.

Conditions for Positive Peace

Lasting peace can only be established by addressing the root causes of conflict. As became evident in the Balkans, when a balance of power is established through overwhelming force instead of negotiation it is not always in the best interests of the people affected. Border disputes, ethnic rivalry and other long-standing conflicts are often marked by periods of cease-fire, if not ceased hostilities. As was also demonstrated in the Balkans, when one side or the other is given an advantage over their enemies, it often leads to the predominance of one side over the other; and while this condition often does alleviate the casualties of conflict, it does not address the causes. Accordingly, an outside force will need to be utilized to create an environment where work can be commenced to improve the standard of living and create positive peace.

To create positive peace, a solution must “touch upon many issues that influence quality of life, including personal growth, freedom, social equality, economic equality, solidarity, autonomy and participation.”17 Opening opportunities for upwards movement in society is essential in creating positive peace. Where historically it has been international policy to simply establish a new strongman to put down insurrection (and to depose him some time later), policy makers are now realizing that it is imperative that the residents of a failed state be given opportunities to improve their lives before any progress towards lasting peace can be made. It is critical to eliminate the conditions that lead to conflict by building infrastructure and creating sustainable systems in failed states and conflict areas while simultaneously involving the populace in the peace efforts.

Utilization of Contractors in Creating Positive Conditions

Contractors, as previously illustrated, provide services according to their contracts. In the context of peace building, the objective is not to provide capability against an enemy force so much as to create a stable society. Companies that specialize in providing logistical and construction support services are going to be the most utilized; however, those firms that provide training services for police and military forces can be used as well. Private medical and judicial assistance can train local populations in how to provide specialty work for themselves. The key to any operation will be maintaining infrastructure sustainably by training indigenous personnel. Contractor activities will need to be coordinated with those of nation-states by an overseeing agency, whether it be the US or the UN, which has judicial authority to investigate and punish abuses. Security should be provided primarily through government-backed military support in order to prevent locals from associating contractors with violence. Again, understanding the specific needs of the populace is crucial; if the locals oppose the activities of the contractors, conflict will occur. The primary focus must be on the improvement of the standard of living, and the entire effort from all associated agencies, be they private or public, must be coordinated and overseen in order to prevent corruption, waste, and counter-productive behavior.

Limitations of PMCs

There are many criticisms of Private Military Contractors, and there exists several limitations which could hinder their usefulness in a peace-making role. By definition, these companies are organized for military operations. Their experience with fighting and their ability to conduct military operations are mostly undisputed; however, these skills have little application outside of war or high-risk security environments. When the primary goal is to promote peace and to reduce conflict, success requires an entirely different mind- and skill-set. It must also be taken into consideration that the primary motivator for these companies is profit. Unless backed by a large resource pool (say, that of a nation state), they are unlikely to perform effectively. However, when compared to maintaining a large military presence, the use of contractors to perform routine tasks may present a cost-effective solution. As well, part of this pressure can be alleviated through market use, namely competitive bidding for contracts. Presenting the market with no-bid cost plus contracts greatly increases the price of using private contractors.

Another consideration which must be made is supervision and accountability. Contractors operating in failed states are known for their autonomy. Due to the nature of their areas of operation, there is very rarely a functioning legal system to try contractors who commit crimes. “[The] challenge, the irony, of this industry is that they don’t typically operate in healthy states. They’re not operating in Iraq because good things are going on there. They typically operate in failed states, and in combat zones; that’s the nature of the business.”18 Only when contractors are held accountable for their actions under an effective judicial system, whether it is extraterritorial or local, can they be utilized to their greatest potential in peace operations. Establishing a definitive system in which contracts and the actions of those contractors performing them can be evaluated is crucial in utilizing them legally and effectively.


While Private Military Contractors have a definite niche that is waiting to be filled in the peace operations community, they have many shortcomings as they exist now. Multiple changes will have to be made to the industry as a whole, and to the way that the world goes about stabilizing conflict areas, before they can be utilized effectively. However, there exists a strong potential for these companies to have a profound and effective contribution to the areas in which they are used. What is crucial is for them to work with established governments and the local populace towards a unified goal and to emphasize nation-building over security. As the developed world shifts emphasis from fighting World War III to rebuilding failed states, an increased utilization of private-sector resources is inevitable. The manner in which these companies are utilized and the controls they are subject to will determine their effectiveness in peace operations.

Works Cited

International Peace Operations Association. IPOA. 5 Apr. 2008 <>.

Bremer, Lewis P. CPA Order 17. United States of America. Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority.

Jeong, Ho-Won. Peace and Conflict Studies: an Introduction. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Limited, 2000.

Lanigan, Kevin. "Letter to US Rep. David Price (D-NC) in Support of Accountability for US Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." Human Rights Watch. 2 Oct. 2007. 5 Apr. 2008 <>.

Shadow Company. Dir. Nick Bicanic. Perf. Robert Young Pelton, Peter W. Singer. DVD. 2006.

TED Talks: the Pentagon's New Map. Perf. Thomas Barnett. 2005. TED. 6 Apr. 2008 <>.

Singer, Peter W. Corporate Warriors : The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. New York: Cornell UP, 2008.


  1. Singer, Shadow Company 0:20’:10”
  2. Lanigan, “Letter to US Rep. David Price…”
  3. Drohan, Shadow Company 0:51’:27”
  4. United Nations General Assembly, International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries
  5. Brooks, Shadow Company 0:09’:00”
  6. Claassens, Shadow Company 0:07’:20”
  7. Bell, Shadow Company 0:43’:17”
  8. IPOA, “About the International Peace Operations Association”,
  9. Drohan, Shadow Company, 0:06’:17”
  10. Claassens, Shadow Company,
  11. Singer, Corporate Warriors, 125
  12. Singer, Corporate Warriors, 126
  13. As quoted in Corporate Warriors, 127
  14. Singer, Corporate Warriors, 296
  15. Bremer, CPA Order 17
  16. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map
  17. Jeong, Peace and Conflict Studies, 25
  18. Singer, Shadow Company, 0:29’:10”

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