Britain has a PMSc Problem:
General Sir Richard Barrons, who was head of UK Joint Forces Command, has told the BBC that by withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan the UK and Western allies have made a strategic mistake which risks a resurgence of terrorism.
The former top UK general said the UK and Western allies have “sold the future of Afghanistan”.
Strategic mistake? Really?
This article explores what is about to happen next – and how?
To do so one has to look inside the deep dark world of the Private Military and Security companies (PMSC) industry.
Because this is the industry that will be taking over from British and American troops in Afghanistan.
Use of Mercenaries – Background
Back in December of 2018, an American man was convicted of killing unarmed civilians whilst on patrol in Iraq.
However, he wasn’t a member of the US Army.
When the incident took place, he was working for a company called Blackwater.
In November 2018, the Taliban carried out a lethal suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.
However, the compound they targeted wasn’t controlled by the army of any nation.
It was controlled by G4S, a private British company who were running an ‘important base’, from which attacks against the Taliban were both planned and mobilised.
The Privatisation of Warfare.
G4S is one of the UK’s biggest private military and security companies. (PMSCs). This company provides pivotal ‘operational support’ to Britain’s military in Afghanistan.
The Taliban suicide bombing brings into sharp focus the extent that this private military security company is present – and directly involved – in combat.
Since 2001 when the ‘War on Terror’ began, billions have been made by mercenaries working for private military and security companies (PMSCs) all around the world.
In the killing zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, these PMSCs have been undertaking roles traditionally reserved for national militaries.
The total worth of the global private military and security industry has been estimated to stand somewhere between £69 billion and £275 billion a year.
PMS – a very British problem
The Uk leads the world in providing Private Military Contractors to the world’s war zones. From combating terrorism in the Middle East or fighting pirates off the Horn of Africa.
Since 2004, the British government has spent approximately £50 million annually with these mercenary type companies.
Many of these companies serve whoever will pay them – from wealthy private individuals to faceless corporations and governments.
However, despite the size of this mercenary industry, the entire sector is shrouded in secrecy. Men trained in the dark arts of subterfuge and counter-intelligence dominate this business, and the result is an industry that operates from the shadows.
Many of these mercenary companies, especially ones based in the UK and US, are heavily involved in military campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their armed personnel can earn as much as £10,000 a month, tax-free.
We know that some private military contractors have been directly implicated in civilian deaths.
For example, back in September 2007 employees of Blackwater, (now Academi), a US private military corporation, opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and wounding a further 20.
In 2007, employees of the London based Aegis Defence Services, which is run by the former Scots Guards officer Lt-Col Tim Spicer, posted footage on the web which clearly showed their guards firing their weapons at what has been reported as ‘civilians’.
The company said the shootings were legal within rules of protocol established by the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
The company has also been criticised for allegedly employing former child soldiers from Sierra Leone as mercenaries in Iraq, for the simple reason that they were cheaper than their European counterparts.
James Ellery, a former director, said the company had a cost-reduction ‘duty’ to recruit from cheaper countries.
In 2011, personnel from another UK private military contractor, Protection Vessels International Ltd, were arrested for stashing arms on Eritrean territory without permission and were later charged with sabotage, espionage and terrorism.
The company’s apology was accepted and, today, it thrives.
Put the gun where the money is
Unsurprisingly, Britain’s private military contractors are driven by economic rather than humanitarian priorities; their operations dictated by where the money is.
At its height, there were reportedly 80 British military companies operating in Iraq, while some of the biggest companies are said to owe their very existence to the profits garnered in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In recent years, alongside counter-terrorism operations, anti-piracy campaigns have become a major source of income. This is explicitly mentioned by numerous companies working in either the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Guinea, Horn of Africa or Somalia.
British companies claim to operate in 17 out the 30 countries that the Foreign Office lists as ‘Human Rights Priorities Countries’ (namely: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the DRC, Russia, Colombia, Yemen, Syrian, Myanmar, Iran, Bahrain, Venezuela and South Sudan).
What are these companies doing there? What oversight is in place in these operations, especially as in some places the government is itself implicated in gross human rights abuses?
And who is paying these companies?
We don’t know.
We do know however that the UK government has, in last decade, deployed British security companies to at least five of these countries; Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
We also know that civilians have been killed by security companies in some of these countries. Given the lack of accountability and media coverage in these areas we do not know just how many civilians have been killed, and what British companies – if any – were involved.
Despite the security companies’ aversion to transparency, and evidence that some have engaged in human rights abuses and political destabilisation, the Foreign Office continues to deploy contractors to states where the Foreign Office itself has spoken out against human rights violations.
Outsourcing military operations also saves the UK government a consideration amount of money.
As Andy Bearpark from the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC) told the BBC
“Certain activities can be done much more cost-effectively by the private sector.”
Government Digital Surveillance Outsourced To PMSC’s
Much of what we think of as UK government surveillance is actually performed by private companies on its behalf.
These services include acquiring and managing the vast datasets which are being recorded of our online activities to providing the analytic software which analyses that data.
The outsourcing of these services means they can be performed with far fewer privacy safeguards or cyber protections to which the UK Government are legally bound.
As social media companies have increasingly passed new policies prohibiting the use of their data feeds by the intelligence community, the use of PMSC’s to collect this type of data, including geographic profiling, has only increased.
It follows then that this collected data must be stored somewhere.
While the UK government owned data centres, NCSC and GCHQ are frequently used as the repositories, much of the data is now stored and managed by private companies.
This means that the unclassified collection of data from social media streams is often archived directly by contractors on their own systems.
Once collected, the data must be analyzed. The bespoke analytic software environments used by the UK intelligence agencies are almost exclusively built by contractors who then lease that software via subscription, rather than transfer perpetual rights to the government.
In order to fine tune the software, these contractors are given direct access to surveillance data collected by the UK government in order to improve their algorithms and/or develop new deep learning models.
Compliance with Law
What we don’t know is when private contractors are deployed in areas of human rights abuse, how will any illegal use of force be investigated and/or prosecuted?
Moreover, it’s not clear who might prosecute a private security company that uses force on international waters.
The International Code of Conduct (ICoC), was set up in 2010 under an initiative by the Swiss government. Yet out of the 235 British PMSc companies, only 15 are members of the ICoC.
Some commentators have claimed that the UK’s private security industry has radically reformed itself in recent years, away from the ‘fast and loose’ trading environment of the early days of the War on Terror.
They claim that the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers that some companies sign up to provides standards that are kept.
However this code of conduct remains voluntary and, despite the protestations of the industry being well-run, many insiders strongly say otherwise.
For example: The Security in Complex Environments Group, is an organisation set up to develop standards for British security companies working abroad. It is led by , Brigadier Paul Gibson.
In a 2016 interview with the Guardian Newspaper he said:
“You’re always going to have rogue companies in any business sector. If a client is prepared to take a risk by using a private security company that is not regulated, that is a matter for the client.
That is absolutely not the way British private security companies are currently operating.“
Call to Action
The actions of the 235 UK-based, internationally operating, private military and security companies raises numerous areas of concern about a hidden industry, where profit-seeking private entities are trusted with governmental security tasks, while themselves being subject to a perilously weak system of ‘self-regulation’.
The outsourcing of military force does not just undermine UK government’s claim to using only legal use of force, but given the lack of scrutiny of these private military and security companies it may well enable the government to get tasks done which avoids all the public scrutiny which comes with official deployments.
Even though the foreign office argues that UK-employed private military and security companies are just conducting defensive operations, and hence not qualified as ‘mercenaries’, the lack of transparency that pervades the industry offers little in the way of assurances or reasons to trust this statement.
Until Britain’s mercenary industry shows greater transparency and accountability, RiP calls on the British government to take its declared human rights ambitions seriously.
Stop deploying private military and security companies to countries that have major human rights concerns.
Anonymous leaves you now to reflect on what you may have learned from this article.
As you reflect listen to the meaningful lyrics of – Happiness is a Warm Gun – by The Beatles.
Peace and Tranquility.
Special Thanks to
All un-named sources
Leonardo da Vinci for his 1480 picture Profilo di capitano antico, also known as il Condottiero.