The Role of Mercenaries in Modern Warfare

The concept of mercenaries is not a new phenomenon, instead it dates back to the ancient history of warfare. However, with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the concept of nation states based on distinct nationalistic ideologies have emerged around the globe. Under the nation-state system, the concept of mercenaries became outfitted and then illegalized to be employed. However, the major shift came right after the end of Cold War in the 1990s when the new and dynamic security threats such as, transnational terrorism, proliferation of small-scale conflicts and proxy wars emerged at the international level. Simply, the concept of regular and organized warfare is becoming obsolete so as the employment of regular armed forces against such disorganized enemy. Therefore, the role of mercenaries has also been on the rise since then, but with unusual connotations. In today’s capitalist induced world, mercenaries are disguised in a much fancy term known as Private Military Security Companies (PMSCs) as its role has also been multifaceted and became multidimensional.

The concept of Private Military Firms (PMFs) is not a new factor in play in the warfare domain, instead such firms are utilized by many states around the world including the US, South Africa, Iraq and Colombia. This phenomenon has further aggravated the complexities in understanding modern warring concepts and strategies. With the inclusion of non-uniformed combatants in the battlefield, the war fighting strategies have also evolved. States are more frequently employing these PMSCs on their behalf to attain the desired military outcomes. Whereas, it is the nature of their operationality in the deployed regions that has raised several questions on the legality and accountability of these firms. In this globalized world, where the interests of everyone is interlinked with each other, conflict zones become a revolving door between the PMSCs, military, intelligence and corporate world.

The factors that led to the emergence of mercenaries in the post-1990s are threefold; end of cold war, transformations in the nature of warfare and general trend towards privatization of government machinery. In the post-cold war era, the dynamics of security regimes have changed so dramatically, inclusion and sharp increase of nonuniformed transnational combatants with their distinct sets of ideologies threatened the basic tenet of nation state system which forced the states to deal with such elements through unorthodox mechanism where the private military phenomenon came into play. Similarly, the traditional notion of warfare based on political outcome has also been changing and replaced with the economic gains. Several accounts also corroborate this stance such as in Afghanistan JP Morgan bank was alleged for mining gold during the initial phase of War on Terror (WoT). Similarly, Halliburton – one of the world’s largest providers of products, services, and integrated solutions for oil and gas exploration, development, and production – was awarded contract worth of $7billion dollar. The last point also supports the previous argument since the world has been observing a trend towards privatization of government machinery that provided the pretext to the states to register PMSCs and utilize them for achieving their murky goals.  

The violent role of mercenaries came at the forefront of media headlines in September 2007, when the contractors of Blackwater, the former US Private Security Firm, opened the fire on innocent travelers and bystanders at Baghdad’s Nisour Square killing 17 people and injuring some 20 others. Though the perpetrators got convicted in 2014 for their role in the tragic incident, Donald Trump granted them Presidential pardon in 2020. However, the role of the modern mercenary firms is not only limited to just fighting, instead these firms render logistical and intelligence services as well.

The British government has also increasingly relied on the use of the PMSCs in and around the conflicting regions. There are five such companies whose involvements in the middle east and African continent is not veiled from the international community. However, their operational capabilities vary from one another. As the biggest corporation in this realm, the G4S acronym for the Group 4 Securicor, provides its services to the jail authorities throughout the Britain. The controversial role of the G4S was in assisting the Israel in developing barricading wall in the west bank also supplying security equipment, services and maintenance for use at Israeli prisons check posts. Similarly, several torture cases have been reported in south African prison. The case of G4S shows that the role of PMSCs have not just been limited to combat role of them instead their roles have evolved multifaceted like in Iraq the G4S also involved in protecting private corporations as well as in evacuating high ranking officials from the country.

The question arises here, how can they be so comfortably getting the space to operate in the conflict zones? The answer is simple; because such corporations are operated by the powerful individuals who have close links with people sitting at the higher echelons of decision making and policy formulations, nationally as well as internationally. The most pertinent example is that of Aegis Defence another PMSCs that is being headed by the Nicholas Soames a former UK minister. On the other hand, Erick Prince founder of Blackwater having good ties with Libya’s Khalifa Haftar. Similarly, one of the most recent and contemporary case in point is of Russian PMSC known as Wagner Group.

The notoriously well-known Wagner group of mercenaries emerged into the battling realm in 2014 during the Crimean crisis. Kremlin outsources the major chunk of its military expedition to the well-equipped and highly trained combatants of Wagner group for the annexation of Crimea. It was said to be the group’s first armed operation in which the Wagner members fought alongside the separatists in Crimea that proved to be a decisive factor that outclassed the Ukrainian forces.

Tracing back the history of the Wagner. The corporation is headed by the Yevgeny Prigozhin an elite class businessman having very close association with Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is also nicknamed as Putin’s chef because he provides catering facility to the Kremlin Palace. Dmitri Utkin former Russian army veteran of Chechnya war is widely regarded as first field commander of the group. Whereas, the group’s existence prior to Ukraine invasion was covert and it was operating in a semi-legal grey zone around the contracted regions because according to the Russian constitution, it is illegal to establish private military companies since Russia possesses its own well-structured armed forces for its defense, but on the other side, state run companies are allowed to have private security forces which is quite flagrant contradiction of the constitutional text.

Internationally, the role and operational procedures of mercenaries have been documented such as, article 47 of Additional Protocol I Geneva Conventions, article 1 of the Mercenary Convention which have been ratified by the 37 states up until now and Montreux document. Though these legal documents do form some sort of legal framework for mercenaries but according to Dr. Sean McFate – former Private Military Contractor (PMC) – lack meaningful distinction between Private Military Security (PMS), Private Security Company (PSC) and Mercenaries. The 2005 was the year when this issue was taken up to the United Nations. UN established a Working Group on the use of mercenaries in order to monitor the activities of these companies, the recent statement of the working group suggests that it has observed the dangers of the growing use of mercenaries around the globe.  In 2010 comprehensive consensus based International Code of Conduct (ICoC) for private security providers devised. Though, ICoC provisions are established set of principles for industry based international law to improve accountability process, but it failed in proper governance, monitoring, redress, sanctions and state responsibility regarding PSCs.

Consequently, the active employment of PMSCs has raised the issue of their accountability and legality, which is the main impediment and sort of challenge to regulate them; instead, such companies are required to be hired, which follow internationally accepted rules and regulations. The above explained different international arrangements are devised and then ratified by the major states in order to properly regulate them, and held them accountable to their if any, illegal act. However, the direct involvement of the PMSCs in armed combat operations should be curtailed; instead, they should be used for assistance purposes such as, for logistical support, intelligence gathering, and training of public troops. Similarly, it has become necessary to develop internationally agreed-upon standards and regulatory procedures that must be mandatory for all the states to sign and obey.

[Photo by Staff Sgt Marc Ayalin, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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