During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union dispersed money across the globe to support and build-up proxy militaries and militias, with little priority placed on governance of those forces. With the end of the Cold War, the 1990s saw the emergence of a dialogue on security sector reform (SSR), with an emphasis on governance, oversight, justice, and accountability. In a post 9-11 world, however, security and counterterrorism concerns threaten to elevate “hard” security agendas above issues of transparency, civilian oversight of militaries, rule of law, and democratic governance. By reducing SSR to security strengthening, the United States risks ignoring the local “political economy of the security sector,” feeding corruption, creating militaries that serve international purposes but have little value domestically, and misreading local dynamics in ways that can have dangerous implications. The problem of siloed investment in security sectors can be deepened by the use of US private military companies and contractors (PMCs) to train foreign militaries.

Private military contractors have been employed for the purpose of training state militaries in many settings. Sierra Leone hired Executive Outcomes to instruct and augment their military forces in the 1990s during their fight against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) while the Bosnian government hired MPRI to advise and train its military in the wake of the Dayton Peace Accords. For its part, the United States has most notably employed PMCs in Somalia to avoid deploying troops in the country, and to train military and police contingents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the United States PMCs are attractive because they allow troop numbers to be quickly supplemented on short-notice, allow staff to be recruited internationally and with specialized skills, and facilitate the deployment of forces with little political cost or debate in locations where it might be more controversial to send United States troops (hence, their use in Somalia). However, the use of PMCs entails substantial costs and risks. PMCs may be more expensive than regular soldiers. There is a higher risk of corruption and questions of reliability. Misconduct on the part of contractors risks undermining the credibility and goals of the US missions. Despite attempts by the United States DoD and Congress to create new bodies for managing and monitoring PMCs there is a lack of clarity around how the laws of war apply to contractors and on how contractors should be sanctioned for misconduct. Most importantly in the case of employing contractors to train foreign forces, there is little oversight of contractors in the field, and PMCs are often poorly integrated into larger military and governance operations.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the Department of Defense’s Use of Contractors to Support Military Operations concluded that in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors had been deployed hastily, “without significant consideration of implications for foreign policy and without putting in place the necessary oversight.” The Commission on Wartime Contracting determined that, “too often using contractors [was] the default mechanism, driven by considerations other than whether they provide the best solution, and without consideration for the resources needed to manage them.” As the CRS report states, government officials and analysts may feel that the military is “unable to effectively execute many operations, particularly those that are large-scale and long-term in nature, without extensive operational contract support.” However, this does not mean that military contractors are the right partner for the United States to employ on operations to train and reform security forces. In Iraq, military training was contracted to Vinnell Corporation, a subdivision of Northrup Grumman. Training suffered from serious delays and setbacks. After the first year of its contract, over half of Vinnell Corporation’s first battalion had deserted and the other half could not perform basic functions required for operations. Training of police forces in Afghanistan was plagued by a multiplicity of poorly coordinated stakeholders. DynCorp International was tasked with training lower level policy officers, and attempted to do so in a four to eight week tactical training program that proved largely ineffective, left police units with little effective oversight, and also resulted in high rates of desertion. Beyond these individual examples of failure, there may be an inherent mismatch in seeking to instill values of professionalism, civic service, and democratic control of security sectors through private (and perhaps mercenary) contractors. In countries where SSR is struggling to confront marketplaces that commodify violence, PMCs represent exactly that—the commoditization of military skills.

Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only examples of failure and mismanagement of SSR programming. In fact, there are relatively few examples of successful SSR programs. In her analysis of why the Burundi-Netherlands Security Sector Development Programme has fared better than most, Nicole Ball credits the success of the program to the weight placed on governance, extensive involvement of local actors, careful attention to the politics involved in security reforms, and the Programme’s emphasis on gradually changing societal expectations of the security sector. The eight year long Programme has been marked by continual engagement and dialogue between the governments of Burundi and the Netherlands beginning with an eight-month long dialogue to clearly define the expectations and goals of the partnership. A separate governance pillar was created that institutionalized oversight of the security sector by representatives from multiple government ministries and civil society organizations. Further, prolonged collaboration between government representatives has built a relationship of trust between the two governments and their militaries.

All of the elements of the Burundi-Netherlands Security Sector Development Programme that have contributed to its success are absent in United States programs where police and military training are sub-contracted to private companies. PMCs pursue a narrow training agenda focused on technical competency that fails to engage with the wider government and society, build trust between these bodies and the sponsoring foreign government, or promote democratic governance of security forces. Moreover, such siloed programs are unsustainable, as demonstrated by the collapse of Iraqi forces following the departure of US troops, which has precipitated the need for a new round of training. The short-sighted decision of the United States to relegate the work of training foreign militaries and police forces to PMCs privileges a “security culture” over a “rule of law culture” and privileges military security over human security.

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