Erik Prince, founder of the controversial security contractor Blackwater, recently claimed that for-hire ground troops were the missing element of the US-led campaign against jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
"If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade-size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team," Prince wrote on the website of Frontier Services Group, a security and logistics contractor where he is now the executive officer and chairman.
"A competent professional force of volunteers would serve as the pointy end of the spear and would serve to strengthen friendly but skittish indigenous forces," he continued.
Prince's private expeditionary force may seem a bit far-fetched. Then again, one of Barack Obama's favored analogues for the situation in Syraq is Somalia, a place where the US pursued a "strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines," as the president explained in his speech announcing US military action against ISIS. And in Somalia, security contractors are playing a fairly significant and hands-on role in stabilizing the country.
In terms of his larger point, Prince may be hinting at something that's inevitable. After all, in Somalia, private security contractors are one of those "partners on the front lines" that Obama referred to.
Here's a photo tweeted by George Mason University Horn of Africa scholar Tres Thomas of two employees from the US-based private security and investment company Bancroft Global Development operating with the Somali military:
An African Union (AU) peacekeeping force and the national military have quietly made progress against Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, in Somali in recent weeks—earlier this month, Shabaab was expelled from Barawe, a coastal city and one of the last major population centers the group controlled.
But it's not as if Bancroft just showed up to provide the finishing touches on an already successful mission.
This paragraph from a US Joint Special Operations University study demonstrates that the company played a significant role in shaping the AU force's strategy against Shabaab in the months after the group's blitz through the country in 2007 and 2008:
Bancroft was first approached by Ugandan leadership and invited to work with the [Ugandan military] contingent in Mogadishu in November 2007 ... The Ugandans were well aware that the Somalia campaign would take them into unknown military territory, especially with regards to the challenges of urban warfare. This is where they sought Bancroft’s expertise. After a few reconnaissance trips, Bancroft deployed an initial team of four advisers into Mogadishu in early 2008. Within four months, their team had expanded to 12. After being impressed with their work in the field, Burundi approached Bancroft in August 2008 to provide them with similar assistance.
"Bancroft Global Development's urban warfare training" proved vital to the peacekeepers' success in eventually kicking Shabaab out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu and most other major cities, the study states.
And while it adds that Bancroft scrupulously adhered to a UN embargo on small arms importation to Somalia, much of that ban was actually lifted in 2012, meaning that contractors could take on more traditional combat-advisory type activities—note that both of the purported Bancroft employees in the photo that Thomas tweeted are armed.
Bancroft has diversified within Somalia as well, anticipating a time when they could use their years of involvement in the country to pivot towards more peacetime-orientated activities.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in April of 2013, the company is developing a secured hotel and conference complex along a relatively quiet stretch of Mogadishu beachfront. The WSJ described the property as "a fortified compound sprawled across 11 acres of rocky white beach [offering] 212 rooms including $500-a-night villas, several dining rooms, coffee and snack shops, and a curving slate-colored pool where sun-seekers can loll away Somali afternoons."
Private security contractors are controversial. Opponents claim that these companies are effectively above the law in the countries where they're hired. They're sent to some of the most unstable places in the world, weak states where a private contractor's power and organizational capacity can outstrip that of the local government (G4S's operations in South Sudan are a case in point). Private contractors have a mercenary character to them—they seem like hired guns, sent to foreign countries with little apparent oversight or consent. They can also covertly implement US policy in a way that strikes many as unaccountable.
At the same time, Bancroft's story demonstrates that a private-sector component to the anti-ISIS campaign could be inevitable, as these companies provide a level of expertise, funding, capability, and willingness that other potential on-the-ground actors simply don't have. They can take risks that a foreign government cannot, while also serving as a cats' paw for US policy—as the SOCOM study noted, the Burundian and Ugandan militaries paid Bancroft using money from a US bilateral assistance package, and the company was given an official US State Department contract in 2010.
Maybe companies like Bancroft won't be sending combat forces of the type that Prince envisions. But if history is any guide, they'll be involved in the fight in some form or another—assuming they aren't already.
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