Military Contractors, State Power and the Monopoly of the Use of Force


In the controversially titled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Charles Tilly made a rather uncontroversial observation, the consolidation of state power in Europe was accompanied by the monopolization of the use of force. In Tilly’s words, “A tendency to monopolize the means of violence makes a government’s claim to provide protection, in either the comforting or ominous sense of the word, more credible and more difficult to resist.” (see Bringing the State Back In). Yet recent trends in the United States and elsewhere suggest this cornerstone of state power may be eroding and with it, the ability of the U.S. to achieve success in the Long War.

“Businesses Worldwide. United for Peace”–International Peace Operations Association

The most recent, costly and controversial example of this shift are the private military contractors (PMCs) operating in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently restricted the movement of military contractor Blackwater to the U.S. Green Zone in response to allegations of indiscriminate violence and the targeting of Iraqi civilians. For critics, Blackwater and other PMCs are essentially mercenaries, hired soldiers with little sense of morality or loyalty.

The security contracting industry has been working hard to counter that image through their trade group, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA). The IPOA considers itself “the most ethical, transparent, and effective voice of the Peace and Stability Industry in the world” and paints a different picture of military contractors than we see in the mainstream media. Contractors are removing land mines in Africa, assisting with reconciliation in the Balkans and performing other necessary functions in post-conflict zones throughout the world.

I asked a friend who served as a solider in the first Gulf War what he thought about the role of contractors, was it good or bad for the military, are they of use in specific roles, and so forth. He thought in specific instances, food preparation and service, transportation of basic supplies, etc. using contractors was better than having soldiers perform these tasks. However, when it came to the use of force he was much more critical. Soldiers are held to much stricter rules of engagement and to much harsher consequences and penalties for getting out of line. The contractors are outside of the chain of command and do not share these restrictions.

For the soldier, the behavior exhibited by many contractors is dangerous to our counterinsurgency effort. Unprovoked firefights are a major concern. On a more strategic level, the actions of contractors undermine U.S. attempts to win “hearts and minds” in Iraq and damages American credibility in the ideological struggle throughout the region.

Peter Singer’s recent study for the Brookling’s Institution, “Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Go To War Without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency,” examines these concerns.

The point here is not that all contractors are “cowboys,” “unprofessional,” or “killers,” as Blackwater and other contractors are often described. Rather, most are highly talented, ex-soldiers. However, their private mission is different from the overall public operation. Those, for example, doing escort duty are going to be judged by their bosses solely on whether they get their client from point A to B, not whether they win Iraqi hearts and minds along the way.

Then there are the financial costs. Privatization works great for catering, but it has proved far less efficient for combat operations. Questionable contracts have resulted in the loss of billions of dollars.

Singer’s study explores how the use of contractors:

Inflames popular opinion against, rather than for, the American mission through operational practices that ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency.

As one set of contractors described. “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.”

Participated in a series of abuses that have undermined efforts at winning “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people.

The pattern of contractor misconduct extends back to 2003 and has involved everything from prisoner abuse and “joyride” shootings of civilians to a reported incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor shot dead the security guard of the Iraqi Vice President after the two got into an argument on Christmas Eve, 2006.

Weakened American efforts in the “war of ideas” both inside Iraq and beyond. As one Iraqi government official explained even before the recent shootings.

“They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans. They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”

Reveals a double standard towards Iraqi civilian institutions that undermines efforts to build up these very same institutions, another key lesson of counterinsurgency.

As one Iraqi soldier said of Blackwater. “They are more powerful than the government. No one can try them. Where is the government in this?”

Forced policymakers to jettison strategies designed to win the counterinsurgency on multiple occasions, before they even had a chance to succeed.

The U.S. Marine plan for counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle was never implemented, because of uncoordinated contractor decisions in 2004 that helped turn Fallujah into a rallying point of the insurgency. More recently, while U.S. government leaders had planned to press the Iraqi government on needed action on post-“surge” political benchmarks, instead they are now having to request Iraqi help in cleaning up the aftermath of the Blackwater incident.


I’ll be writing more on this topic in the near future.


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