Ask a Senior Analyst — David Isenberg

Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, David Isenberg. Questions and Mr. Isenberg’s answers are transcribed below.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. He blogs at the Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire. He wrote the “Dogs of War” weekly column for UPI from 2008 to 2009. During 2009 he ran the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers project at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. He also worked for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). He is a U.S. Navy veteran.

Matt R. Batten-Carew: What is your opinion on the potential use of private military contractors as peacekeeping forces by the United Nations? Given a comprehensive code of conduct, clear rules of engagement, and adequate oversight, could these private actors play a role in future peacekeeping operations?

Answer: You have a couple of questions here: Can contractors play a role in peacekeeping operations? And can contractors serve as peacekeeping troops?

In regard to the former question, contractors are already playing a significant role in terms of proving logistics for peacekeeping operations. In regard to the latter question, it is very important to keep in mind the distinction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The first, while dangerous, is far less demanding than the second. In my opinion, contractors can conceivably play a role as peacekeeping troops, albeit more as combat support or combat service support roles.

At this point contractors are not likely to replace sizeable formations of state forces, especially not in peace enforcement operations. People like Blackwater co-founder Erik Prince claim that contractors could be used to fight ISIS. That is outlandish. What companies like Blackwater did in Iraq was protective security, not combat.

What private military companies can do is supply force multipliers, notably in the area of training or logistics.

The devil is always in the details, as you recognize. A crucial issue is whether there can be an agreed-upon and accepted framework of standards and oversight. Without it, many people think that the outsourcing of security functions by the UN to private companies would have a negative effect on the image and effectiveness of the organization.

It is not at all difficult to see what the problems are. Just think of the poor state of oversight by one country, the United States — the world’s largest user of private contractors — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recall all the fraud, waste, and various abuses that took place. Now multiply that by the number of countries involved in a UN peace operation.

Some efforts have been taken by the UN to address this concern. In July 2011, the UN adopted a Human Rights Due Diligence Policy on UN support to non-UN security forces which sets out the principles and measures to mainstream human rights in the work of all United Nations actors supporting non-UN security entities. While the policy does not apply to military contractors, it raises the issue of whether it would be appropriate for the UN to conduct similar due diligence with respect to companies with which it works. The Department of Safety and Security (DSS) has also undertaken to clarify the operating procedures, guidelines, and criteria for the United Nations’ use of armed private security companies. This process resulted in a United Nations Policy on Armed Private Security Companies and Guidelines on the Use of Armed Security Services from Private Security Companies, which DSS published in 2012.

Etah Ewane: Fragile states have become a common marketplace for private security companies. Private companies increasingly supply security and military services and some governments are outsourcing more tasks to them. How has the use of private security companies affected the effectiveness and functioning of states such as Iraq and Sierra Leone?

Answer: The impact of private security companies varies. In part, this is because they can do many different things, from relatively protective security details we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan to the far more rare outright combat done by Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone. You could say that was so exceptional as to be the exception that proved the rule.

Equally, if not more importantly, the impact differs due to the underlying stability and effectiveness of the host nation government. Iraq and Sierra Leone, to use your examples, were very different places. Iraq may have been a one-party dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, but it had a relatively strong centralized government bureaucracy before the U.S. invasion and was able to exert relatively strong regulatory control over contractors, albeit limited, due to the coalition mandated reorganization of the Iraqi government and the U.S.-declared immunity for contractors under U.S. government contract.

Sierra Leone, on the other hand, was a shattered and broken state, with virtually no ability to enforce control over the company Executive Outcomes when it was fighting the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel group fighting the Sierra Leone government. Yet, EO did everything it was supposed to, without causing any problems. That was a tribute to EO’s professionalism, not something that can be said about all private security companies today.

The best work on this subject to date is Deborah Avant’s book, The Market for Force. She notes that although in some cases, the functions provided by private security contractors can bolster state building, “by defeating opponents and centralizing power over coercion so as to perform a more state-like function,” the very weakness of state institutions also carries the risk that contractors end up being used to prop up a corrupt leader or regime. “Also,” she notes, “the participation of private actors often creates or enhances the capacity of parallel security structures that inhibit state building. Though privatization may promise greater functional gains to weak states, it is a rather desperate state-building gambit.”

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