There is much in the current news about Russian security contractors dying in Syria. It must be remembered that the Russian contractors were preceded by American security contractors, who came to total more than twenty-five thousand in Iraq in 2009. The difference between the two is that there are mechanisms for accountability in the United States when contractors violate their mandate or international law.
The most infamous private security firm was Blackwater, the company founded by Erik Prince, who recently touted that he could win the war in Afghanistan with his latest company, Frontier Services Group.
Blackwater came to represent all that was wrong in the outsourcing of the war in Iraq (2003–2011). During that time frame, for the first time in U.S. history, private for-profit contractors were equal in number to U.S. troops. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used the term “willy-nilly” to describe the exponential growth in the use of private contractors. Prince’s Blackwater has the dubious distinction of being the focus of a U.S. House of Representatives investigation in October 2007, as its activity in Iraq and Afghanistan included shooting incidents, contracts in excess of $1 billion, and escalation of force incidents. Four Blackwater personnel were also responsible for the massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Bagdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. The delay in bringing them to trial in the United States created a great deal of anger within Iraq and provided a powerful rallying cry for Islamic extremists.
The emergence of the Islamic State, and more than three years of extreme violence in taking over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, owes much of its origins to the evacuation of U.S. troops and affiliated security contractors in 2011. It is ironic, then, that the Russian security contractors in Syria can be considered a consequence of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to the extensive use by the U.S. of security contractors.
There are many opaque, if not hidden, reasons for using contractors. While U.S. contractors in Iraq were not specifically destined for combat, unlike the Russians in Syria, they were heavily armed, and in responding to threats they engaged in hostilities. There are myriad reasons to use contractors in combat situations. While the numbers of uniformed military personnel are readily known, those of contractors are not; contractors can provide extra forces that are not acknowledged, and with their death there is less attention than with uniformed personnel; the legal status of contractors is extremely ambiguous, as international law is weak and national laws generally do not apply; and furnishing contractors, as was the case with Blackwater, can be very lucrative indeed.
The major difference between the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Russian use of private military contractors is that once the abuses and subterfuges of Blackwater and other providers of security contractors became known, there were means in the U.S. to remedy these violations. Today there are legal bases, doctrine, institutions, and training to govern the use of private-security contractors in combat situations. It is unlikely that Russia will do the same. In fact, we should expect to see a continued increase in Russia’s use of private military contractors in combat.
Thomas Bruneau is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School. He researches, teaches, and writes on topics including civil-military relations, intelligence, and contracting out security. His Patriots for Profit: Contractors and the Military in U.S. National Security was published by Stanford University Press in 2011.
Commander Daniel G. Straub is a Senior Military Fellow at Center for a New American Security and holds a PhD in Security Studies from Naval Postgraduate School. While at NPS his research focused on non-traditional uses of Private Security Companies. His views are his own and do not represent those of any part of the U.S. government.