Washington, 13 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, many nations began reducing the size of their armies. But they still need extra military manpower occasionally.
So began the trend toward private paramilitary companies, which could help nations, as well as corporations, with the additional security they might need in war zones or other high-risk areas.
"What you're doing is leasing these contractors for the specific period of time, for the specific task, and paying only for those things. You can then terminate the contract."
Peter Kuznick says the use of private security contractors in Iraq is unprecedented. Kuznick is a professor of history at Washington's American University and specializes in military affairs.
Kuznick notes that NATO forces have been using private soldiers for security in the Balkans. But he says the proportion of private security personnel to regular military soldiers until now has been no greater than 10 percent.
In Iraq, Kuznick says, estimates of the number of private international security personnel range from 15,000 to 20,000. That is as much as 15 percent of the total U.S. presence of about 130,000 soldiers. And, he says, these private contractors -- who most often work for corporations, diplomats, or journalists -- have no accountability to the U.S. military.
Kuznick also questions the backgrounds of some of these contractors. He says many are former U.S. military men who are trustworthy. But others have backgrounds as "thugs" -- as he put it -- for discredited regimes.
"The South Africans were the former military personnel under the old apartheid regime. One of the groups that's well represented in Iraq now are the Chileans. They are the former thugs for the old [Augusto] Pinochet dictatorship. So we've got some people there who I would suspect don't share America's values, and there's not a lot of restraint on what they do," Kuznick says.
Kuznick says he has not yet seen evidence of abuses by private military men, but he says there do not seem to be any mechanisms in place that would prevent them from taking unnecessarily violent action in largely lawless Iraq.
There is also the expense of these private security forces. Already, U.S. President George W. Bush has set aside more than $87 billion for U.S. operations in Iraq this year. Part of that expense, Kuznick says, will go toward private security contractors, who can earn up to $1,000 a day.
Kuznick concedes that many of the private security men in Iraq are paid by the companies whose employees they protect. But he adds that these companies themselves are often paid by the U.S. government, and so ultimately Washington is bearing the cost.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard believes the U.S. government does benefit financially from the private security personnel in Iraq. Allard is a former intelligence officer who now teaches military affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
Allard tells RFE/RL that while the daily pay for a U.S. Marine, for example, does not approach 1,000 dollars a day, using private soldiers is still economical for certain duties, such as protecting top U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer and other senior coalition officials.
"What you're doing is leasing these contractors for the specific period of time, for the specific task, and paying only for those things. You can then terminate the contract. With the Marines, you're paying them, you are training them, you are retaining them and you're retiring them," Allard says.
Allard says using private security contractors for such jobs also frees up regular U.S. soldiers to do what they do best -- dealing with insurgents.
Allard contends that accountability is an issue with private security firms. He says private security forces are first accountable to their companies and to the people they protect. And they are accountable, as well, to the countries in which they operate.
"With the military, you can be tried and court-martialed. Obviously, you can't do the same thing with contractors, but they are still controlled by the people who pay them. Can they be held accountable in front of a court of law? Yes, they can," Allard says.
Allard says he would prefer to have more U.S. troops in Iraq to maintain order, but says that should not preclude the use of private security personnel there.