We must fight our instinctive distaste for mercenaries
2 August 2006
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
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
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
The big companies in
"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
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
If I was working in
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
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
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.