Sand, Guns, and Blood

Photo: Patrick Baz/AFP

The normalization of private military corporations by the U.S. has pushed mercenary contracts from the black market into the mainstream economy. In Yemen, the use of military contractors has elevated civil war into a regional struggle for geopolitical influence.

Imagine the problem faced by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its volunteer military was suddenly tasked with occupying and rebuilding two countries, from running hospitals to policing and rebuilding infrastructure. It couldn’t build up capacity quickly and even if it wanted to, it wouldn’t come cheap, especially given the administration’s aversion to raising taxes. Instead the U.S. used contractors — forced to rely on them to the point that eventually, any state or military function could be outsourced. From laundry services to security, the U.S. created demand, and in doing so, normalized and incentivized behaviour that other state actors soon imitated. By breaking norms against the use of contractors and efficiently plugging personnel gaps in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. was developing a geopolitical trend.

Private contracts for mercenaries have existed as long as petty tyrants have, but the emergence of corporatized military companies is a recent phenomenon. Two factors laid the groundwork for proliferation of these mercenary firms: an abundance of weaponry and personnel following the post-Cold War reduction in global military capacity, leaving thousands of trained soldiers suddenly unemployed and staggering amounts of military hardware exported into global arms markets; and the emergence of a global marketplace where private military companies could be publicly funded and traded.

Today’s corporatized defense ecology is a byproduct of the breakdown of the bipolar order of the preceding era. With the regulatory and financial impetus provided by the U.S. in the early 2000’s, the problematic practice of private military contracting was soon normalized in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Early on, the U.S. had a laissez-faire approach to contractors, (although that would change in 2007). That period witnessed the rise of Blackwater, perhaps the archetypical Private Military Company (PMC). During the War on Terror, Blackwater received 1.6 Billion USD in contracts from the CIA and U.S. military, completing over 100,000 missions. Concurrently, they found the time to characterize multiple civilian murders as insurgent casualties, and for threatening to kill the state department investigators tasked with an inquiry into the death of 17 Iraqis.

Blackwater—once described as "the hood ornament for an industry that was for centuries pretty much illegal"— still exists. Rebranded as “Xe Services” in 2009, and then again as “Academi” in 2011, they have resurfaced via a high-profile contract with the United Arab Emirates.

The Arab Spring renewed concerns of regime durability in the Middle East. With it, Emirati autocrats worried whether their own forces could suppress nascent localized unrest. Factoring in demographic challenges and weak defense capacity, the UAE was forced to consider Private Military Corporations (PMC’s). They turned to the most established—and controversial—firm in the business.

Negotiated by Erik Prince, the former CEO of Blackwater International, a self styled "civilian warrior", Christian Fundamentalist, and ex-Navy SEAL with several geopolitical fuck ups on his resume, the contract consists of 450 active mercenaries, with an additional 1500 in reserve. Trained in the shadows over the course of five years and dressed in Emirati uniforms, the mercenaries were originally tasked with supporting UAE forces in both internal and external operations. Now, they engage in “front-line” operations, supporting the deposed Yemeni government.

Experts believe that the increasing involvement of PMCs in Yemen is likely to be problematic. Stephen Metz argues that kidnapping and extra-legal means of raising funds could create a an almost endless conflict. "With enough money anyone can equip a powerful military force. With a willingness to use crime, nearly anyone can generate enough money." Furthermore, P.W. Singer describes the a scenario that may just unfold in Yemen: "Warfare itself thus becomes self-perpetuating, as violence generates personal profit for those who wield it most effectively (which often means most brutally), while no one group can eliminate the others. PMCs thrive in such profit-oriented conflicts, either working for these new conflict groups or reacting to the humanitarian disasters they create."

It is no wonder that PMCs have prospered thanks to U.S. involvement in the Middle-East. The normalization of privatized violence has shifted military contractors from the periphery to the center of geopolitical affairs once again. There is no foreseeable end to the conflict in Yemen, where 93% of casualties have been civilians. Another 21 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and an estimated 1.8 million have been displaced.

Meanwhile, Private Military Corporations, like the one created by Erik Prince, make a killing.

Stefan Kostic

Stefan is a an Envoy editor and UBC Political Science alumnus. In the future, he hopes to attend law school and complete his J.D. If he isn't on a list yet, he expects to be on one soon.

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