From PMC to CMSP: Thinking Strategically About Private Contractors

I hope that among those who read these posts is someone from the publishing industry, because I know where your next book should be coming from.

Allow me to introduce you to Commander Marcus Mohlin of the Swedish National Defence College who is doing his PhD work at the Finnish National Defence University. I've been reading his dissertation, The Strategic Use of Military Contractors: American Commercial Military Service Providers in Bosnia and Liberia: 1995-2009, which he will be publicly defending in January.

While, over the twenty years I have been following this issue, the quantity and quality of literature on the subject, from papers to books, has both increased in volume and improved in quality, it is still rare to find publications which focus on the strategic impact of private military and security contractors.

It is this that that Mohlin has done. Looking at past conflicts in Bosnia in the mid 1990s and Liberia in the wake of the civil war in 2003 (and not nearly enough has been published about the latter), where PMC's were used, he has tried to reframe the debate and says that there are strategic rationales for the U.S. government to use military companies, as opposed to the commonly cited financial and economic reasons, although he calls them commercial military service providers (CMSP), and not PMC's which he regards as an outdated concept.

Note to readers: the argument over what to call private contractors working in war and conflict zones is a longstanding one and is not likely to be settled anytime soon. Since I'm not an academic and have no stake in terminology or, even worse, typologies, I'll stick with PMC. However, it is not just semantics. Words do have both meaning and impact. They color our perceptions and influence subsequent debates. Thus Mohlin is correct to write in regard to usage of terms like private military companies or private security companies:

However, the use of these terms is misleading mainly for two reasons. Most important, the first part of the term, private, invokes the idea of an almost dichotomous relationship between the public and the private spheres in society. Often, society is described as being divided into a private and a public realm where the government is thought to deliver public services and where private contractors can at times be hired to produce such services. However, the rift between the two may be more intuitive than it is in real life, to say nothing of how difficult it is to discriminate between the two in theoretical terms. Many researchers today argue that the relationship is not as black and white as that, and that we should in fact admit that there are degrees of private involvement in the business of the state and vice versa. Today it is instead popular to discuss private-public partnerships (PPP), a concept that acknowledges that commercial companies and governments cooperate, enhance and influence each other rather than competing and undermining each other. Thus I find the prefix private to be misleading. Secondly, the wording military company conveys a picture of a company that is a military entity with military capabilities, rather than a commercial entity providing services that may at times be of a military character. I argue that such companies are not military in their nature but that they sometimes provide services that can be of a military character. Some companies are indeed staffed by former military personnel but their rationale for being there is the military know-how they give to the company, not that they together constitute a cohesive military unit with military capabilities. The term PMC may therefore be seriously flawed, and I argue that the continued use of it contributes to a deepening of the idea of the private-public divide as well as to further misunderstandings of the nature of the companies it intends to capture.

Undoubtedly, what he writes will be cheered by the PMC industry but that is not a reason to dismiss what he writes, because his dissertation goes to the very heart of strategic theory; how states organize their military capabilities in order to be able to wield power within the international system.

His main findings are that commercial companies have five typical strategic roles:
First, they cloak the state by substituting traditional uniformed troops; second, they act as trailblazers by securing US influence in new regions and by breaking new ground by contributing to the build-up of new partners; third, they act as scene setters by preparing the ground for military exit out of a theater of operations or by facilitating inter-operability between foreign militaries and the US military; fourth, they can be used to infiltrate the security structures of foreign countries; fifth and finally, they can be used to provide offensive capabilities by providing either kinetic or cyber warfare effects. Or as one of his tables puts it:

Table 3 The five strategic roles of CSMPs

1. Cloaking the state
1.1 Using contractors to gain increased leverage during strategic rivalry
1.2 Avoiding public outcry
1.3 Contracting for military assistance in the face of international criticism
1.4 Hiding the state, and concealing US Government actions

2. Trailblazing
2.1 Securing US influence in new regions by establishing American presence
2.2 Breaking new ground, and building alliances

3. Privateering Creating strategic reach to the US Government by the provision of offensive capabilities

4. Setting the scene
4.1 Preparing the ground for US military exit from an area of operations
4.2 Facilitating interoperability between foreign militaries and the US military

5. Infiltrating Embedding into the structures of the receiving state to provide information to the US Government

The first, is well known by now but the others are less well appreciated; although the training that PMC have done in Iraq and Afghanistan have given that aspect of their work greater publicity in recent years.

His primary argument is that "commercial companies can at times be regarded as merely another foreign policy tool." That sounds innocuous but the implications are substantial. In effect, it is a back to the future approach. The back part being times when the fate of the nation literally depended on private actors, such as privateers being commissioned by George Washington to attack British merchant ships along the American coast line; thus creating a navy even before the United States officially had one.

It has been noted before but is worth repeating that commercial companies are actually not new as an option for the furtherance of security or interest related goals.

The problem encountered in South Vietnam in 1954 for instance, when the Geneva Accords had set a limit of 342 military advisors, was solved by using contractors. Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAG) simply hired civilian consultants from Michigan State University through US Operations to stand up the training teams needed.

You might say okay, but that was over 60 years ago. What about today? Well, consider the Middle East and the seemingly eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the Annapolis Conference in 2007 it has been widely held that a strong Palestinian state, cooperating with Israel and its neighboring states, is the best solution to a lasting peace and to a stabilized situation in the region.

Beginning immediately after the establishment of Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s, the US has provided security assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) under a program called Palestinian Authority Security Sector Transformation (PASST). The program, run by the US State Department through the office of security cooperation at the US Consulate General to Jerusalem, concerns vetting and training of a national Palestinian security force and the Presidential Guard. Training is conducted by American commercial military service provider DynCorp International at the International Police Training Center in Jordan, not far from Amman.
The purpose of the training provided by DynCorp through PASST is to ensure increased professionalism within the Palestinian National Security Forces (al Amn al Watani) so that they are capable of dealing with internal security issues. Primarily, it is a question of fostering the PA to deal with terrorism emanating from within the West Bank and Gaza. On a strategic level, however, the US probably has several self-serving purposes as well.
To the US, an increased Iranian influence is seen as a major and general challenge and is regarded as a threat to future stability not only in and around Israel, but to the wider Middle East region as well. One way of reducing direct Iranian pressure on Hamas, and consequentially its indirect pressure on the PA, is to provide the Palestinians with an alternative to Iran as a sponsor. By strengthening the PA and its different security structures, and by consolidating them under a "unified, defactionalized civilian control", it is believed that the influence of Hamas can be reduced. According to a CRS report, the assistance provided by the US can be seen as supporting a "professional security effort by a nascent state-building institution to rein in militants who operate outside of the law", and as a means of gaining "political leverage for PA [...] against factional opponents such as Hamas".

The PASST is one such attempt. By strengthening the security institutions inside PA and by improved relations between PA and Israel, the Iranian influence over Hamas may be dealt with and possibly also reduced. To this end, DynCorp International has a Mobile Training Team (MTT) comprising 25 law enforcement and security specialists working at the training center in Jordan and an additional group in Jerusalem. The latter assist the PA by administering shipments of equipment to the Palestinian security force and by advising them in strategic planning.

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