Offering the means of war to anyone who can afford it will transform warfare and — if left unchecked — can thrust the world into an era of perpetual fighting and suffering.
Last week, the world learned that German mercenaries exist. Two former Bundeswehr soldiers wanted to recruit up to 150 men and offered $10,000 a week to join their private army. They possessed a horde of weapons and nuclear waste. The plan: Go to Yemen, kill Houthis, and bill the Saudis (it is unclear if Riyad agreed). But everything fell apart when German authorities arrested the two ringleaders.
It might sound like a happy ending, but it’s not. Mercenaries are on the rise, and if it can happen in democracy-loving Germany, it can happen anywhere. Thirty years ago, mercenaries were cheap Hollywood villains. Now they are a dangerous reality: Russia uses the Wagner Group to spearhead expeditionary efforts in the Middle East and Africa, Colombian mercenaries fight in Yemen for the UAE and assassinated the president of Haiti, American mercenaries work in Yemen and Venezuela, Nigeria hired mercs to wipe out Boko Haram, millionaires hire them to flee house arrest in Tokyo, and Libya is a mercenary-on-mercenary war. There are also cyber-mercenaries called “hack back” companies.
Mercenaries are back. Every year, more soldiers of fortune appear, and they come from every crevice of the world. No one knows exactly who they are, who hires them, and how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit economy.
All we know is that the world’s “second oldest profession” is making a comeback, and this should concern us all. There are multiple factors driving the trend. It helps to think of it less as traditional war, and more like a marketplace, with supply (mercenaries) and demand (clients). The market for force has been growing and diversifying in recent years.
On the supply side, mercenaries are proliferating. They exist in three main groups, arranged around language and consequent networks: English, Russian, and Spanish. Others exist too, such as French, but they are minor. The industry was catalysed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because the US hired thousands of armed civilians to conduct defensive military operations like convoy, personnel, and compound security. Many of them were not even American.
Many remember when Blackwater contractors massacred 17 civilians at a Bagdad traffic circle in 2007, outraging the Middle East and the American people. Once the US left Iraq and Afghanistan, the mercenary labour pool they created began looking for new clientele. Some ended up in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and offering progressively lethal services.
American wars normalised mercenary use. Under international law, mercenaries are illegal. Washington ignored the law and instead referred to mercenaries using vague terminology: private military companies, private security companies, private military security companies, defence contractors and contingency contractors. Additionally, the United Nations and international community did nothing serious about the problem, effectively “green lighting” the use of private force. But when a superpower uses mercenaries and gets away with it, then everyone can do the same. The American precedent unleashed the market for force.
Mercenary clients are also diversifying and expanding. Like any marketplace, the more mercenaries appear then the more customers show up, and vice versa in spiral that feeds itself. It makes good business sense too, since mercenaries sell security in a deeply insecure world. This includes non-states actors too, from the extractive industry to CEOs on the lamb.
What is being traded in the market for force? Plenty. First, it allows the super-rich to wage war, effectively lowering the barriers of entry into armed conflict. For example, the UAE hired cheap Colombian muscle to fight in Yemen, sparing Emiratis. Second, it allows clientele to rent expensive niche services, like special operations forces or attack helicopters.
Countries with big militaries need mercenaries too. The American and Russian populations detest seeing their soldiers come home in body bags, but do not care about dead contractors. Owing to this, Washington and Moscow have increasingly turned to mercenaries, from Blackwater (now known as Academi) to the Wagner Group. Again, this lowers the barriers of entry for war, encouraging more armed conflict.
Outsourcing firepower also circumnavigates democratic accountability of the armed forces, lowering the bar to sustain wars. In the US, congress can issue “troop caps” in conflict zones, for example mandating 3,000 soldiers in Iraq. But mercenaries do not count, so the White house can have 6,000 contracts on the ground, in addition to the 3,000 troops. This stems any moral hazard in the public sphere about war. Leaders can engage in risky military operations abroad with minimal domestic political consequence.
But the biggest reason mercenaries are resurrecting is because warfare is changing — it’s getting more clandestine. We live in an information age, and weapons that provide plausible deniability, like mercenaries, are more important than raw firepower.
In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, not by blitzkrieg but through deception. They covertly deployed Spetsnaz special forces, mercenaries like the Wagner Group, Little Green Men, and fake pro-Russia militias. Dense propaganda, troll factories, and other active measures further concealed the truth, until it was too late. Moscow created the fog of war, and moved through it for victory. While the West stood befuddled about what was going on, the Crimea was a fait d'accompli.
Mercenaries ooze plausible deniability because even if caught, it is difficult to know who exactly they work for. They may not even know, as seen with the mercenaries who killed the Haitian president. Clients can disavow them, but not so with soldiers. If you want to wage war in secret and/or commit human right violations, better to have mercenaries do it than your own troops.
Those who think international law is the solution are misguided. Even if we had better laws, who will go into Libya and arrest all those mercenaries? The UN? African Union? NATO? Nobody. Worse, mercenary can shoot law enforcement dead. The market for force literally resists regulation, which is why it is the second oldest profession.
Germany is the latest data point in a disturbing trend that is largely ignored by the international community. Big countries like the US and Russia dally with mercenaries to achieve short-term gains with long-term costs. Others imitate them, and the international community does nothing of substance. Perhaps someday soon the Fortune 500 and super-rich will have their own private armies and wage war for any reason they want, no matter how petty.
Worse, history teaches us that mercenaries start and elongate wars for profit. In between contracts, they become bandits and racketeers. A world awash with mercenaries creates human suffering and regional instability. Yet the international community seems unaware of the threat.
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