As the position of the Coalition forces in Iraq looks increasingly untenable, it is not just the fate of the national military contingents that is in question.
Private military contractors, which make up the second largest Coalition contingent, are also considering their future following the end of the "Baghdad bubble," the boom in the industry spawned by lucrative U.S. government contracts.
Some of the beneficiaries of Pentagon largess are among the British firms that have recently formed their own industry body, the British Association of Private Security Companies, which is now holding its inaugural meeting [.pdf].
In a sign of the newfound respectability of these companies, the venue will be the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on London’s Whitehall. Among those speaking will be high-profile mercenary Tim Spicer, who only a few years ago was persona non grata with the British government because of his role in the Arms-to-Africa affair.
Spicer’s presence is likely to bring some unwanted attention to the conference in the shape of a "virtual protest" orchestrated by Irish human rights group the Pat Finucane Center (PFC). Details of the e-mail and phone protest were to be released on the center’s Web site today.
The PFC has long criticized Spicer’s role as a battalion commander in Belfast in 1992, when two of his soldiers shot dead 18-year-old Peter McBride. In spite of their murder conviction, Scots Guards Mark Wright and James Fisher were later allowed to remain in the army and serve in Iraq.
Spicer himself went on to a controversial mercenary career in Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and later Iraq, where his company, Aegis Specialist Risk Management, holds one of the largest private security contracts.
Even Aegis, however, is now looking beyond Iraq. In a paper published by RUSI, Aegis analyst Dominick Donald argues that "the Iraqi private security market is clearly maturing: more discerning clients and a number of well-established providers mean lower bids and tighter margins. If these trends hold true, then security contracts are likely to be smaller and less worth the effort of larger, well-established PSCs [private security companies] with substantial overheads."
Donald’s pamphlet “After the Bubble: British Private Security Companies After Iraq” is remarkably candid about the options for the sector. One of its proposals is that private security companies should target humanitarian aid as an area of expansion.
"Humanitarian and development assistance will increasingly be more closely tied to government policy," Donald argues. "This is a natural political extension of the fact that GWOT [Global War on Terror] will increasingly involve the UK’s targeted use of soft power, of which humanitarian and development assistance is a perfect example."
Donald believes this will eventually lead to a falling-out between aid agencies and the governments that provide much of their funding:
“The sector’s insistence on retaining the perception of political neutrality and humanitarian impartiality means that it is extremely reluctant to be in any way associated with government activity. Many would therefore see participation in a planning process as jeopardizing their independent status.
"Yet none of this holds true for PSCs. Might there then be an opportunity for the private sector, which would be far readier to work to government’s directions?”
Remarkably, the main thrust of Donald’s argument is not that PSCs can operate in areas too dangerous for aid agencies. Instead, the key selling point of PSCs is precisely that they need not "deliver assistance impartially on the basis of need."
This is a suggestion so cynical that it is surprising to find it committed to paper. Clearly, if aid budgets are diverted to PSCs delivering programs driven by geopolitical considerations, the logical corollary is that real humanitarian priorities will go unmet.
If that agenda is realized, the rise of the mercenary industry may prove to be one more disastrous consequence of the Iraq war.