PMCs: Are they worth employing?

Private military companies (PMCs) are in the spotlight after the Russian PMC Wagner launched a mutiny against its principal, namely the Russian government. Wagner was a useful private army for Russia for its overseas operations in the Middle East, Africa and other regions. Russian President Vladimir Putin trusted Wagner for attacking Ukraine as well but recent disagreements nearly led to a coup against the government in Moscow.

Though they have existed throughout history, the first modern PMC was Watchguard International, a company established by former British veteran officers in 1965. There are hundreds of PMCs operating in more than 50 countries now. The number of recruits is estimated to be approximately 2 million and their revenue exceeds $100 billion annually. For example, Wagner’s annual revenue is estimated to be $10 billion. The United States, in particular, has a long history of utilizing mercenaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries. It is estimated that 57% of military personnel in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 were PMC operatives, to which the U.S. paid $6 billion-$10 billion, while there were 200,000 mercenaries in Afghanistan in the same period. Iran’s proxies also work like PMCs. There are 150,000 Shiite militants across the Middle East, who fight in more than 100 armed groups that are directly tied to the Iranian army. Besides regular salaries, mercenaries are motivated by faith, martyrdom, residence permit in Iran, etc.

Registered as corporate companies, PMCs provide combat services for profit rather than for political reasons. So, the basic reason for fighting is financial gain. Such companies either recruit veteran soldiers or civilians that are capable of fighting. Besides fighting on the battlefield, they also provide training services for armies or guard political leaders. The principal employing them can be a state, non-state group, international organization, multinational corporation, NGO or even an individual.

States prefer to use PMCs because, first, while casualties of the army cause public fury, those of these companies are not so politically charged. Second, the contractor doesn’t take any responsibility for the crimes of PMCs as it generally denies that the PMC was recruited by itself. Third, the principal doesn’t have to provide social benefits, housing, etc. to PMC members, only payment.

Yet, working with PMCs has operational disadvantages, too. First of all, the principal state may lose control and oversight over the PMC as it has fewer means to steer the company. Since it is the PMC engaging in combat, it has complete discretion over the course of the war, which can mislead or misinform the principal. This was what Russia encountered when Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Progozhin challenged Moscow. Second, weapons, money and other commodities provided to PMCs might be misused, sold or transferred to other groups. One example of that is the weapons provided by the U.S. to the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian wing, the YPG, being transferred to the organization’s core members. The Turkish army has seized many U.S.-made weapons from the killed PKK members.

Third, a PMC may have no limit in acting fiercely and escalating violence. Remember how both American and Russian PMCs mercilessly killed civilians in Iraq and Syria respectively? Fourth, utilizing paramilitary companies might be dirty and immoral. When they commit crimes with the help of principals, e.g., killing civilians, their crimes might create problems for the recruiting state. Finally, a PMC member fights as long as he is paid well and there is less risk of being killed. When the combat is fierce, they avoid fighting. Except for some occasions, they should not be expected to die for the principal state as their goal is just to make money.

However, despite the many disadvantages, states may not give up working with PMCs. Wagner’s mutiny rarely happens and probably would not happen if the group fought on Russian land and within its borders. Generally, using PMCs as surrogates is costless for principals and enables them to achieve what they can’t do with their armies in legal and usual ways. Therefore, we should expect more PMCs in the near future rather than seeing a decrease in their number.

Source: Daily Sabah

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