War in Iraq and Afghanistan presented the United States’ and British governments with serious logistical and legal problems when faced with the prospect of the long-term military occupation of these nations following wars deemed illegal by the international community. Without any clear exit strategy from either of these theatres of the war on terror the continued presence of US and British troops – with an ongoing list of casualties – could only produce a toxic effect at home. The solution for both governments was the same; the contracting of armed private security firms to effectively carry out the functions of the US and British armies on the ground.

According to the 1989 United Nations Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries – a convention the United States has refused to sign – the use by states of private contractors for military purposes is a breach of international law. It is for this reason that the US and the UK contract ‘security operators’ rather than mercenaries, but the line between the two has proven to be thin. Leaked video footage and documents pertaining to the actions of Blackwater (a company that has repeatedly changed its trading name to evade prosecution and reputational harm) and other such private sector outfits have shown them to act routinely in a mercenary capacity.

Such private armies, rather than train their own staff, buy in their skills from former professional soldiers – especially from élite units – from a number of armies. The US’ closest Latin American ally Colombia had committed to contribute troops to the war in Iraq, but – without much comment at the time – these Colombian regulars never arrived… officially. In 2010 it was discovered that Blackwater had in 2005 illegally recruited these Colombian soldiers, known for their long experience of fighting a ‘dirty war,’ for private sector positions in unofficially occupied Afghanistan. Complaints against these private security groups from within the unofficially occupied countries draw a picture of an exceptionally dirty war being waged against their civilian populations.

Outsourcing of this type by states such as the United States and Britain has a number of advantages. Contracting private armies means that the buyers can more easily distance themselves from the human rights violations that have become a hallmark of their operations, and avoid the negative public attentions at home from a prolonged war with an increasing body count. One other interesting aspect of the guns-for-hire racket is that it permits the aggressor states (‘the buyers’) to use the coded and innocuous language of ‘civilian contractors’ when an employee of an armed private security firm is killed, wounded, or taken prisoner; thus justifying the use of legitimate force.

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