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The Politics of Mercenaries: Deep Dive into the Multibillion Dollar Illicit Market of Private Force

Who Is a “Mercenary”?

There is no expert consensus on who exactly a “mercenary” is. Those in the industry, their clients, and some outside experts spurn the “M” word owing to the associated stigma and give these private-sector fighters new labels: private military contractors, private security companies, private military companies, private security/military companies, private military firms, military service providers, operational contractors, and contingency contractors. Since the emergence of this new warrior class in the 1990s, volumes of academic ink have been spilled on differentiating them from mercenaries.

In simplest terms, a mercenary is an armed civilian paid to do military operations in a foreign conflict zone. For example, civilians conducting direct actions or training troops in foreign conflict zones are mercenaries because they are performing uniquely military functions. Federal Express, a courier company, delivering a parcel to Kabul during the Afghanistan War is not a mercenary firm because logistical supply is not an exclusively military task. Only privatized military tasks earn the label “mercenary”.

Mercenaries were ubiquitous in the Ukraine conflict. Companies like the Wagner Group conducted a wide range of secret missions, all denied by the Russian government. Ukrainian oligarchs hired mercenaries, too, but not for the country’s sake. Billionaire Igor Kolomoisky employed private warriors to capture the headquarters of oil company UkrTransNafta in order to protect his financial assets.

Mercenaries are more powerful than experts realize, a grave oversight. Those who assume they are cheap imitations of national armed forces invite disaster because for-profit warriors are a wholly different genus and species of fighters. Private military companies such as the Wagner Group are more like heavily armed multinational corporations than the Marine Corps. Their employees are recruited from different countries, and profitability is everything. Patriotism is unimportant, and sometimes a liability. Unsurprisingly, mercenaries do not fight conventionally, and traditional war strategies used against them may backfire.

Private-army Phenomenon

The private force has become big business and global in scope. Even terrorists hire mercenaries. Malhama Tactical is based in Uzbekistan, and they only work for jihadi extremists. Malhama’s hired guns are all Sunni, but not all are not ideological as their clients. Their services are standard for today’s market, functioning as military trainers, arms dealers, or elite warriors. Most of their work is in Syria for Nusra Front, an al Qaeda–affiliated terrorist group, and the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Syrian branch of a Uighur extremist group based in China. In the future, jihadis may hire mercenary special forces for precision terrorist attacks.

If terrorists can hire mercenaries, why not humanitarians? Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as CARE, Save the Children, CARITAS, and World Vision are increasingly turning to the private sector to protect their people, property, and interests in conflict zones. Large military companies like Aegis Defense Services and Triple Canopy advertise their services to NGOs, and NGO trade associations like the European Interagency Security Forum and InterAction provide members with guidelines for hiring them. Some think the UN should augment its thinning peacekeeping missions with certified private military companies.

There are even mercenaries in cyberspace, called hack back companies. These computer companies attack hackers, or “hack back” those who assail their client’s networks. Hack back companies cannot undo the damage of a network breach, but that is not the point. They serve as a deterrent. If hackers are choosing targets, and they know that one company has a hack-back company behind it and the other does not, they select the softer target. Also known as active defense, this practice is currently illegal in many countries, including the United States, but some are questioning this edict since the National Security Agency offers scant protection for nongovernmental entities. For example, the WannaCry ransomware attack in May 2017 infected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries. Victims included the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, Spain’s Telefónica, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, and U.S. companies like Federal Express. If countries cannot protect their people and organizations from cyber attacks, then why not allow them to protect themselves?

African Conflicts Exacerbated by Mercenaries

Africa is a continent that seems to be perpetually at war with itself. Nearly half of its 53 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one. The causes behind most of the dirty wars raging in nations such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Niger have been lost in time; the soldiers and rebels involved locked in a spiral of violence where killing is the only aim as ideological targets fade into the past.

But where there is little hope, there is considerable profit. Much of Africa is a fertile recruiting ground for private mercenaries and security contractors who are willing to do the dirty work for various governments, for example, when president Filipe Nyusi wanted help last year to tackle a jihadist insurgency in northern Mozambique, various private military firms were keen to oblige. Mr. Nyusi chose Russia’s Wagner Group, which vowed to make short work of the rebels. But after a bunch of its men were killed, it pulled out, humiliated.

In its place, the government has hired a firm with a very different pedigree: the Dyck Advisory Group (dag), led by a South Africa-based colonel, Lionel Dyck. Mr. Dyck served in the army of Rhodesia, the white-run state that became Zimbabwe at independence in 1980. In the 1970s, when Mr. Dyck wore his uniform, the Rhodesian army used to attack Mozambique and the Zimbabwean guerrilla bases that Mr. Nyusi’s Frelimo party was hosting. Times change, as do alliances.

The DAG group`s contract has not been renewed and that prompted Total to evacuate everyone from its oil processing plants. This brings a lot of questions on the relations between mercenaries and multinationals.

Multinationals and Mercenaries

Multinational corporations are the biggest new clients of mercenaries, especially the extractive industries. Companies working in dangerous places are tired of relying on corrupt or inept security forces provided to them by host governments, and they are turning to private force. For example, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan employed Triple Canopy to protect its vast mine in Papua, Indonesia, where there is an insurgency. The China National Petroleum Corporation contracts DeWe Security to safeguard its assets in the middle of South Sudan’s civil war. Someday ExxonMobil or Google may hire an army, too. Mozambique`s Total had DAG group as their support services apart from the Mozambican Army and opted out when the DAG contract was not renewed.

An Emerging Threat

When people think of private military contractors, they imagine Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq circa 2007. However, the market for force has moved on. Firms like Blackwater are quaint compared to the Wagner Group and other contemporary mercenaries. Curiously, this trend is overlooked by scholars, the mainstream media, and the Intelligence Community. Consequently, there is a dangerous lacuna of understanding concerning this emerging threat.

The private force also known as private contractors has become big business and global in scope. No one truly knows how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit market. All we know is that business is booming. Recent years have seen major mercenary activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. Many of these for-profit warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America’s most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows.

Recently, the USA said they won’t meet their deadline to pull out their soldiers from Afghanistan and sighted concerns that US withdrawal from Afghanistan could risk progress on women's rights. In addition, the Biden administration was seeking $753 billion for the Pentagon budget for 2022. In reality, this was so because the industrial-military complex is in charge, and testament to that is Biden who chose a member of the Board of Directors of Raytheon to be his Secretary of Defense, Lyod Austin, resulting in the Pentagon seeking a record military budget of $753 billion. Even the flimsy reason that women’s rights are behind the US not pulling out all of its troops and meeting the deadline that had been proposed was to justify the benefits to the military-industrial complex.

Private Force, Power, and World Order

Private force is manifesting everywhere. After 150 years underground, the market for force is returning in just a few decades and is growing at an alarming rate. In military strategy, there are five domains of war: land, sea, air, space, and cyber. In less than 20 years, the private force has proliferated in every domain except space, but that too may change. Space is already privatized with companies like SpaceX, and it is possible that privately armed satellites may one day orbit the Earth. The re-emergence of mercenaries is one of the most dangerous trends of our time, yet it is invisible to most observers. That is by design. The implications of a resurrected market for force in world affairs are substantial. Offering the means of war to anyone who can afford it will transform warfare and the future of war. If money can buy firepower, then large corporations and the super-rich will become a new kind of superpower. This will rewrite the rules of global order, not seen since 1648. Who, how, and why people fight will change, and there will be wars without states, accelerating global chaos.

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Yours in Thoughtful Learning

Progress Madzamuse

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