We must fight our instinctive distaste for mercenaries

We must fight our instinctive distaste for mercenaries

The Iraq bubble has burst but the need for private security companies will not go away. They should be regulated by the state.


Max Hastings
2 August 2006

The Guardian


A recession is looming in a sector of the economy you may be barely conscious of, PSCs. Since 2003 private security companies have been a great British success story. Worldwide, but notably in Iraq, businesses founded by and employing ex-soldiers have coined it by providing armed protection.


An established company, Control Risks, saw its turnover soar fifteenfold after 2003 amid the huge demand for bodyguards. A host of new entrants, often set up overnight by a handful of old army mates, joined the market. Contractors charged around £600 per man per day, paid each SAS or Para veteran £400, and pocketed the difference. The British Foreign Office, American companies and foreign visitors were happy to write whatever cheques were demanded for experienced "close protection" types. Fortunes have been made.


Yet now the bubble is bursting. Pay rates are being slashed, and Iraqi ministries and businesses are seeking to give the work to their own nationals rather than foreigners. American contractors display increasing reluctance to employ British ex-soldiers rather than their own. Everybody agrees that times are getting harder. Some companies will soon go bust, and many people are being laid off.


I sense that many readers will have little sympathy for hired guns who make huge sums of money from stricken societies. Arming men to kill and be killed is among the most sensitive prerogatives of the state. To subcontract such functions to commercial enterprises seems inherently dangerous and pernicious. When these people hit the headlines, like Mark Thatcher's merry band who sought to stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea, it is usually because they have been caught doing ugly and reckless things.

Yet there is a growing belief in western governments that PSCs - and private military companies, which offer combat services - have a role to play that needs to be formalised.


Most national armies, including those of Britain and the US, are undermanned and overcommitted. A wide range of national interests overseas demand attention and protection that uniformed soldiers are not available to provide. The holes will increasingly be filled, believe some senior service officers and diplomats, by the private sector.


The big companies in Britain are making a heavy pitch for respectability and have formed the British Association of Private Security Companies. One of its members, Colonel Tim Spicer's Aegis, has just sponsored a pamphlet published by the Royal United Services Institute, setting out the trade's stall for the future. They are seeking government regulation, because they believe that only by formally accepting supervision can they break through the barrier of political and public scepticism.


"Private security operates in the gap between state will and state capability," declares the pamphlet, After the Bubble: British Private Security Companies after Iraq, written by Aegis's Dominick Donald. He argues that such companies can operate in war zones with more freedom than national forces, partly because their casualties are less politically sensitive.


Unlike some American rivals, they do not currently seek to offer full combat services, but believe they can enter new fields such as intelligence collection and analysis; protection provision for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction; military training for the forces of governments Britain wishes to assist; and the provision of humanitarian assistance in areas where it is too dangerous for unarmed organisations such as Oxfam or Save the Children to operate.


It is hard to see an acceptable intelligence role for businesses. It seems far too risky to give non-government employees access to databases, or indeed to engage them at all in these sensitive activities. And my hair stood on end when I read of the US vice-president of the Blackwater Corporation telling a conference in Jordan this year that his firm is ready to market private armies for low-intensity conflicts, up to brigade strength.

But it seems almost inevitable that PSCs will become increasingly involved in the other functions mentioned above, because there is no one else to fulfil them. There are significant areas of the world where the staff of humanitarian NGOs dare not go. It is surely better for food and medical supplies to be delivered by PSCs than by nobody.


The media in Iraq and Afghanistan would be almost unable to function without personal protection. In my days as a foreign correspondent, in places such as Vietnam we despised colleagues who chose to carry weapons.


If I was working in Iraq today I still would not go armed, but I would not travel unless escorted by someone who was. Media coverage of that country, unsatisfactory as it is, would be almost impossible without PSC support. So many journalists are being killed in war zones that it would be foolish not to recognise that they, like NGO staff, need protection of a kind that national armies are often unwilling or unable to provide.


The government remains fearful of introducing the regulation of PSCs. Any notion of legitimising mercenaries is bound to cause trouble on the floor of the Commons, and once any company possesses a seal of approval from government the responsible Whitehall department will have to take the rap if it does something ghastly. It is tricky enough for the Ministry of Defence to explain the activities of erring soldiers without also becoming responsible for bands of armed civilian desperadoes.


There, I have lapsed into hostile cliche, which shows how deep the instinctive distaste for mercenaries runs in most of us. Yet I believe regulation must come, because the alternative is worse. For ministers to keep the private security companies at arm's length, to ignore them, is ridiculous when the US and British governments are paying them tens of millions of pounds a year for their services.


Since PSCs will continue to play a substantial role around the world even now that the Iraq gold seam is getting mined out, it seems far preferable to monitor and control their activities than to play ostriches. Britain's beloved Gurkhas, after all, are no more than mercenaries, as was every man of the old Indian Army.


It does not seem too hard to set parameters for security companies: protection and logistical support, humanitarian aid in war zones, training of Whitehall-approved overseas forces - yes. Active combat roles, intelligence and African coups - no. On those terms, we should recognise the uses of an ugly business.

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