Corporate Soldiers

Privatizing warfare.


According to an April 8 report in The Washington Post, private security companies in Iraq—among them Control Risks Group Ltd., Hart Group Ltd., and Triple Canopy—are pooling their resources, organizing "what may effectively be the largest private army in the world." Employees had been losing their lives, particularly after the spring insurgency began, and the firms found they couldn't rely on the armed forces for protection. So instead they turned to each other.

The blurry line between America's official forces and private military companies has concerned Pentagon watchers for years, with critics such as Ken Silverstein, author of Private Warriors (Verso, 2000), arguing that such arrangements allow Washington to intervene abroad without public accountability. Companies such as the Arkansas-based Trojan Securities International and the Oregon-based International Charter Incorporated (slogan: "Anytime, Anywhere") have deployed personnel to conflicts from Haiti to Croatia to Sierra Leone. Others offer military training to such nations as Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Usually such interventions pass unnoticed in the press, unless a firm gets caught in a scandal. (The most notorious wrongdoers were attached to DynCorp in the former Yugoslavia, where some employees were involved in the coerced sex trade—and others were fired in apparent retribution after blowing the whistle.)

But what's starting to happen in Iraq is different. Rather than the government contracting with businesses to perform military services, businesses are contracting with each other for military and intelligence support, with no direction from U.S. or coalition authorities. The private security community in Iraq—about 20,000 people in mid-April, and expected to grow even larger after the planned transfer of sovereignty on June 30—was, by necessity, setting its own policies.

It would be a mistake to describe this as the free market in action. The firms are being paid by the government, are staffed substantially by retired military personnel, and would not be in Iraq in the first place were it not for policies set in Washington. But it is a spontaneous example of what strategists call "networked warfare" (see "Out of the Info Loop," June), and it represents an intriguing turn of events: a moment in which the conflict between Washington and its Islamic enemies becomes a conflict between two sets of nonstate actors.