Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan as Third-Party Propagators: Categorizing the Participation of Private Security Companies

By Asad L. Asad
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 2/3 |

Private Military Contractors as Third-Party Propagators

Given these standard labels for the different third-party actors in international conflict, it would be difficult to justify lumping private military contractors into one of the aforementioned categories. Indeed, since they perform a variety of functions in a wartime climate, private security firms may span multiple groups. For example, contractors have previously been hired to provide transportation and engineering services, clothing, and weapons.47 Such services would label them as both international organizations and active participants in a hot conflict (behavior more characteristic of a state actor).

In modern times, private military contractors have adopted a new, more unique role in international skirmishes: They no longer serve merely as interveners or intermediaries, but as active, third-party participants.48 Although this is not the first instance of private security companies engaging in a hot conflict—the General Accountability Office reports that private firms fulfilled security functions in the Balkans and Southwest Asia49—private military corporations in Afghanistan and Iraq supplement and even substitute the work conducted by the American military in the region. The range of armed and unarmed security missions undertaken by private security firms are depicted in Table 1.50

Table 1: Services Performed by Private Security Companies in Afghanistan and Iraq

Armed Services Unarmed Services
Static (Site) Security: protecting fixed or static sites, such as housing areas reconstruction work sites, or governmental buildings. Operational Coordination: establishing and managing command, control, and communications operations centers
Convoy Security: protecting convoys traveling through unsecured areas. Intelligence Analysis: gathering information and developing threat analysis.
Security Escorts: protecting individuals traveling in unsecured areas. Hostage Negotiations
Personal Security Details: providing full-time protective security to high-ranking individuals. Security Training: providing training to domestic or international security forces.

As evidenced by these diverse services, private military contractors have an important and direct role in the conflict between the United States and Afghanistan. Despite limitations on the number of contractors each security company is allowed to employ at any given time—currently restricted to five hundred51—the level of contractors present in Afghanistan has increased since 2007.52 Much of this increase can be attributed to those companies that unlawfully exceed the limit by hiring more contractors, many of whom are unlicensed and unaccountable to the local government. Estimates regarding the total quantity of contractors in Afghanistan, including both legal and illegal contractors, number as high as 70,000.53 Given this drastic growth in the level of authorized and unauthorized private contractors, President Hamid Karzai issued a decree calling for the removal of all foreign and national security companies within four months of his August 2010 announcement; nevertheless, American officials challenged the mandate stating that there was still a need for private security companies in the country.54

Much of the utility that the United States gains from employing private security companies in an international conflict stems from the “decisive military boost” they can provide, especially in short-term conflicts.55 Nevertheless, PMCs have also incited countless reports of misconduct. For example, in September 2007, Blackwater (now Xe Services) employees indiscriminately fired at a crowd of civilians in Iraq’s Nisour Square, killing seventeen and wounding twenty-four.56 Furthermore, instances of private security contractors shooting without provocation at handcuffed Afghans and myriad scandals (e.g. at Abu Ghraib Prison) have all resulted in the escalation of violence against American-led war efforts in the region.57 Such scenarios lend credence to the classification of private security contractors as third-party propagators.

Additional empirical evidence further substantiates the claim that private security companies have served as instigators of conflict in Afghanistan. From simple bribery to explicit cooperation with the Taliban,58 the contractual nature of these private security forces makes them incredibly shortsighted: they are to fulfill their mission by any means necessary. As a result, a culture of “rampant waste, fraud and abuse [that is] unmonitored and unchecked” has developed, at a yearly cost of $1 million per contractor.59 In Afghanistan, concrete evidence is hard to come by regarding the relationship between an increase in the level of violence and the role that third-party contractors play in instigating them. This is largely due a close relationship between high-level Afghan officials and the heads of private security firms.60 Nevertheless, as reported in the New York Times, various outbursts of violence have been linked to PSCs, one of which supports the theory that these security contractors serve as third-party propagators:

After a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians, two of the biggest private security companies — Watan Risk Management and Compass Security — were banned from escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar. The ban took effect on May 14. At 10:30 a.m. that day, a NATO supply convoy rolling through the area came under attack. An Afghan driver and a soldier were killed, and a truck was overturned and burned. Within two weeks, with more than 1,000 trucks sitting stalled on the highway, the Afghan government granted Watan and Compass permission to resume. Watan’s president, Rashid Popal, strongly denied any suggestion that his men either colluded with insurgents or orchestrated attacks to emphasize the need for their services. Executives with Compass Security did not respond to questions. But the episode, and others like it, has raised the suspicions of investigators here and in Washington, who are trying to track the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to private security companies to move supplies to American and other NATO bases. Although the investigation is not complete, the officials suspect that at least some of these security companies — many of which have ties to top Afghan officials — are using American money to bribe the Taliban. The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.61

Indeed, the observed evidence is compelling, but to truly determine whether or not private security companies serve as third-party instigators requires more than just an empirical description of conflicts instigated by these forces. Even more important than these cases of wrongdoing is the upward trend in the number of private security contractors currently employed in Afghanistan. With the total number of authorized and unauthorized contractors in the country at approximately 70,000—and the number expected to continue to rise62—a more thorough analysis of these corporations’ behavior reveals is in order. For instance, Figure 2 demonstrates the perpetual nature of the industry with respect to contractor levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan.63 When President Obama announced in February 2009 that American troops would begin to withdraw from Iraq, the total number of contractors peaked in that country in June 2009 and proceeded to decline precipitously; likewise, the relatively low number of contractors in Afghanistan in June 2009 spiked sharply in the same month. As Operation Iraqi Freedom finalized in August 2010, a downward trend in contractors in Iraq was offset by an increased level of security forces in Afghanistan, indicative of the relative ease of transferability of security contracts. For example, although the official combat mission in Iraq has ended, the intractability of the war efforts in Afghanistan has resulted in those contractors to shift their focus to the latter country.

Figure 2: PSC Personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq

Despite the above-demonstrated transferability of private security contracts, it is important to note that such transferability is not synonymous with contractors serving as third-party instigators. In order to validate this claim requires a more rigorous statistical analysis that is beyond the scope of this paper due to data limitations. However, while understanding that correlation does not mean causation, this paper will proceed by correlating the increase in the levels of private security contractors in Afghanistan with the number of American and coalition troop deaths in the country. Since it has been argued that even the “perception that [the Department of Defense] and other government agencies are deploying PSCs who abuse and mistreat people can fan anti-American sentiment and strengthen insurgents,”64 the number of troop deaths should represent an adequate measure of insurgent activity fueled by anti-American sentiment. Figures 3 and 465 below depict the relationship between troop deaths and the level of private security contractors over the last several years:

Figure 3: PSC Level in Iraq and Total Troop Deaths

Figure 4: PSC Level in Afghanistan and Total Troop Deaths

The secondary y-axes on both graphs represent the total number of military deaths in each country. For the hypothesis to be supported, it would be necessary to see a decline in the number of troop deaths in Iraq that corresponds to the declining level of mercenaries there; likewise, in Afghanistan, the number of deaths must coincide with the increased level of private security contractors. Evaluating these two models supports the hypothesis, though more statistical analyses are required. Afghanistan, in particular, shows a marked increase in the quantity of military deaths that corresponds to a rapid increase in the number of security contractors. The graphical representation of the data for Iraq bears a similar pattern. Although the number of contractors in Iraq fluctuates over the timespan represented, if one were to chart the data on a quarterly scale, then the trend would be more overtly downward. Nevertheless, both graphs support the conclusion that an increase in the number of private contractors in one country in which violence is waged serves to instigate conflict; similarly, a decrease in the level of private security forces in a country leads to a reduction in the number of troop casualties.

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