THE news cycle will soon be inundated with images of US troops leaving Afghanistan, presumably never to return. Of the 98,000 troops that were deployed at the height of the US presence a mere 2,500 remain, and even these are largely confined to their bases as they busy themselves in packing their bags and conducting rehearsals for the now inevitable end of America’s longest war.
But the numbers don’t tell the full story of the US deployment as there are at least 18,000 private ‘defence contractors’, as they are called in the sanitised, euphemistic doublespeak of these times, still present in Afghanistan, at least half of whom are not Americans but nonetheless fight America’s wars for a reasonable fee. Simply put, they are what we would have called mercenaries in less enlightened, if more honest, times. Although most are assigned to support and not combat duties, they are nevertheless hired cogs in the American war machine and over the years their numbers have only grown in proportion to actual soldiers on the ground, from an estimated 10 per cent of total deployment in World War II, to over 50pc during the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. This means that at the peak of the deployments, there was more than one mercenary for every US soldier on the ground.
Today, there are mercenary armies that make Blackwater look like babies.
This was because the US, in its hubris, imagined that the war would be over in a few weeks or months, and when the reality dawned that far more troops would be needed the only options were to withdraw (impossible), to initiate a draft (political suicide) or else to outsource to groups like the now infamous Blackwater. Thus begins the modern commercialisation of war.
The appeal is obvious: using these shadow soldiers allows you to hide the actual cost of war, and since every American government since Vietnam shudders at the thought of flag-draped coffins returning home in the thousands, using hired fighters whose deaths receive little to no attention makes perfect sense.
Secondly, it allows you to withdraw from conflict zones without actually withdrawing, since the numbers of the mercenaries do not count towards official troop numbers. On the flip side it also allows you to intervene in strategic theatres while still maintaining plausible deniability; a match made in heaven really.
There are, of course, consequences; in the 2007 Nisour square massacre, Blackwater’s killers for hire murdered 17 Iraqi civilians in an incident that revitalised the insurgency. Predictably, the consequences were not borne by the unaccountable mercenaries but by regular US troops and Iraqi civilians. Similar excesses led to the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah in 2004 and the shattering of an uneasy peace between locals and US forces in the area.
Interestingly, the 2004 lynching is perhaps the first time the extent of mercenary involvement in this conflict came to light even though American media, obediently toeing the Pentagon’s line, repeatedly referred to these men as ‘civilians’ while wilfully ignoring their actual purpose.
Today, we have mercenary armies that make Blackwater look like babies, and often we find that while these armies work for hire, they tend to have specialised clientele. Take the Russian mercenary army Wagner: this outfit, which provides substitute ground forces for Russia in Syria and has also been involved in (entirely deniable) operations in Ukraine, isn’t just about infantry but has, or has been provided access to, tanks, artillery and even warplanes. In 2018, Wagner made a frontal assault on US forces in Syria, only to suffer massive casualties in a pitched four-hour battle. While Wagner’s fortunes have since declined, other private armies for hire have stepped in to fill the void.
In some cases mercenaries are more effective than regular forces, especially when it comes to dealing with adversaries using guerilla tactics. In Nigeria, Boko Haram had stymied efforts by the military to crush its insurgency, until the government hired South African mercenaries (complete with gunship helicopters and special forces teams) which notably saw more success and even helped the Nigerian military acquire much-needed counter-insurgency skills. And of course, when you have an appetite for war but don’t have a deployment-capable military you can do what the UAE did in Yemen, where mercenaries from Latin America and Africa were hired to fight the Houthis. We even see that apart from states, private organisations, MNCs and even NGOs have or are seriously considering obtaining the services of these groups for security.
But unlike national armies, mercenaries uphold no flag and pledge allegiance only to the paycheck. Hence they are not invested in ending wars but in fact in extending them, given that this is quite literally their bread and butter. And in a world riven with shadow conflicts and proxy wars, business has never been better.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2021