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David Isenberg

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PMC in U.N. Operations? It Depends

Posted: 11/30/11 02:15 PM ET

For many years now supporters of private military and security contracting firms (PMSC) have argued that they can play a useful role in United Nations peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations.

Certainly, the possibility that PMSC can bolster U.N. peace operations has an intuitive appeal. After all the problems with U.N. peacekeeping operations are longstanding and well documented; much of it having to do with the reluctance of the various U.N. member states to provide sufficient numbers of qualified troops for various crises which, while unfortunate, are not considered to be in their national interest when it comes to deciding whether to become involved.

And for at least two decades now PMSC advocates have been arguing that private contractors are more flexible, quick to deploy, easier to scale up, and more cost effective than regular military forces. It is also true that in the past certain private firms have performed noticeably well in various wars.

So let's examine the pros and cons of this in more detail. Fortunately, a detailed article was published last year in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies in Canada. The article, which won first prize in the JMSS Awards of Excellence 2010 contest, is From Dogs of War to Soldiers of Peace: Evaluating Private Military and Security Companies as a Civilian Protection Force by Stephen Wittels.

According to Wittels, using private contractors solves the political cost problem, since, there is little to no domestic outcry when contractors are killed, as opposed to regular military forces. I feel sad to write this but given a decade's worth of experience in Afghanistan and Iraq it is hard to argue to the contrary.

It also addresses a quality problem, since one of the greatest difficulties the UN has in fielding effective military contingents is its major member states tendency to treat UN missions as an opportunity to sustain their ill-prepared forces on the cheap.

Another virtue of contractors is that it helps solve the "flawed mandates" problem which plagues complex UN peace operations. Mandate problems generally fall into one of two broad categories. The first occurs when U.N .bureaucrats push through a strategy or concept of operations to which TCCs (Troop Contributing Countries) do not fully consent, leaving field commanders in a situation where the military means available to them do not match the U.N.'s stated political ends. A second conundrum follows when the UN must depend exclusively on a single member-state for a given operation's success. In this situation, the lone contributing country is free to dictate terms to UN officials, making the organization vulnerable to abandonment. By procuring at least a portion of its military resources from entities other than nation-states, and thereby denying one TCC a disproportionate impact on a mission's strategy, the U.N.'s vulnerability to both of these problems will likely be reduced.

Of course, all of these assumed virtues are dependent on the industry's ability to live up to its promises. There is room for doubt on that point. Wittels writes:

Cursory analysis of private forces' attributes in the areas of numerical strength, force quality, mandate tenability, command and control, rapid reaction, and staying power indicate that non-national military and security personnel should, in theory, constitute an improvement over the existing means of fielding robust UN missions. The above analysis also demonstrates, however, that on some matters there is reason to be skeptical that private forces' potential utility can be realized in practice.

Bear in mind that Wittels himself believes that "The answers to each of these questions indicates that private forces can be an improvement over U.N. forces in absolute terms and can furthermore achieve this at reasonable costs to U.N. member-states." So he is far from opposed to using PMCs in U.N. operations.

Let's start with how many people will actually be needed. (For detail start reading at page 153 in Wittel's article) Estimating the future can only be approximate, never precise, but looking at both ongoing and possible future peace operations Wittels writes that "one can rationally posit that 100,000 additional forces will be needed by the year 2020." Of course, the estimate also depends on exactly what it is one wants a private contractor to do.

If one takes as a main reason for hiring private protection forces the desire to relieve DPKO of the need to use inferior troops and police, then it reasonable to assert that private forces should be numerous enough to effectively crowd out these forces in the market for protection forces. Taking the per-country ratios of troop donations observed in 2009 as fixed, the conclusion is that sub-standard forces constitute roughly 70 percent of the total supply of coercive protection forces. The data in Figure 1 allows one to further translate this fraction to actual market demand for private personnel: Under the least burdensome scenario, the current optimal market supply of private personnel is 52,500 troops and police. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the figure is 105,000. In both cases, an additional 7,000 contractors would be needed to satisfy demand each year.

Skipping over his discussion of past contractor use in Africa, Central Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Wittels notes:

It is now possible to inquire whether PMCs can deliver enough manpower to make an analogous situation of UN-mandated private coercive protection viable. If one compares the demand figures in Table 1 with the availability of reliable contractors, the answer is unambiguously‚ no. The data from Iraq indicate a market ceiling of around 22,500 armed personnel. Even if one doubles this figure under the somewhat implausible assumption that inferior companies are crowding out half of PMCs' capacity in Iraq, the total still is short of even the lowest troop estimate of 52,500 provided in Table 1.

However that doesn't mean contractors might not be the right choice. "Comparing private military contractors to an equal number of UN troops is not an apples-to-apples comparison, however. As the preceding analysis demonstrates, an accurate measure of relative worth must at the very least take into account fighting expertise, ability to train co-combatants, and risk-acceptant deployment of equipment," according to Wittels.

Knowing roughly what the in-theater ‚multiplier effect‛ is for PMCs allows interpolation of how many effective units of force the PMC industry can put forth for coercive protection. Consider two scenarios based on concerns raised earlier in this section about the true number of reliable contractors in Iraq and the difficulty of coercive protection relative to EO/Sandline's activities in the 1990s. In a positive outlook scenario for PMC use in UN-mandated missions, there are in fact more than 22,500 contractors available (assume 45,000), and coercive protection is no more difficult than defeating an aggressor. In a more pessimistic scenario, the number of available contractors appropriate for coercive protection is below 22,500 (assume 10,000), and coercive protection is much more difficult that being a partisan in a civil war (assume twice as difficult).

The point of the above is not to argue that contractors can't play a useful role in U.N. peace operations. Rather it is to say that the answer to the question of whether their use makes sense is that it depends. To argue that contractors will always be a net benefit is as silly as arguing as they will always be a net liability. The truth is that U.N. peace operations, whether peacekeeping or peace enforcement, will always be complex, delicate endeavors where Murphy's Law runs rampant. Whether use of PMC makes sense will require impartial, dispassionate consideration of evidence; not reliance on industry clichés that PMCs are the modern day equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man .

One last point: PMC advocates commonly argue that in many cases PMC personnel are more professional than many of the regular military personnel in U.N. peace operations, as the latter may be ill-trained conscripts. While it is true that many private security contractors, especially from Western countries were once former highly trained military personnel themselves it is equally true that professionalism is as much a function of control and contract wording as former training. Consider what Wittels writes:

From a tactician's perspective, private forces are unquestionably superior to the overwhelming majority of UN coercive protection forces. However, complex peace operations with civilian protection components have more than a tactical dimension. In particular, they require forces that have both the raw war-fighting skills necessary to succeed in combat and the capacity to promote law and order in civilian populations. While it is eminently clear that private security personnel fulfill the first half of this formula, their competencies as agents of law and order have on numerous occasions been called into question.

Blackwater International leaps to mind as an important case for discussion when considering this issue. There is no doubt that Blackwater contractors were often unnecessarily rash in their use of force in Iraq. However, a closer examination of the complex context in which Blackwater operated in theatre leads to the supposition that it is not necessarily the company's natural disposition to behave with impunity towards civilians. Consider, for example, the following quote from Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, the officer in charge of reconstructing the Iraqi military after Ambassador L. Paul Bremer disbanded the Saddam-era army, and an individual whose job was made much harder by Blackwater contractors' conduct:

... they were doing their job, exactly what they were paid to do in the way there were paid to do it... If Blackwater loses a principal (like Paul Bremer), they're out of business aren't they? Can you imagine being Blackwater, trying to sell your next contract saying 'Well, we did pretty well in Iraq for about four months and then he got killed.' And you're the CEO who's going to hire and protect your guys. You'll say, 'I think I'll find somebody else.'

Because the State Department failed to build into Blackwater's contract strong incentives to treat Iraqis respectfully, the company did not. Indeed, Blackwater had every reason to shoot first and ask questions later with regards to Iraqis since any civilian could, in theory, have been an assassin, and contractors were, for the first few years of the war, immune to prosecution. It should also come as no surprise that in this consequence-free environment, Blackwater employees adopted excessive aggression as their default disposition, even when it served no apparent purpose. Had their assignment and their conduct been properly engineered in their contract from the outset, a strong argument can be made that Blackwater would not today be known as a collection of "cowboys."

 
 
 

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