In the main, American contractors have performed well in Afghanistan. And that country does not have the same degree of concern about freelancing, gun-toting individuals that marks discussions about Iraq. Yet there is real concern about the loyalties of Afghans who work with these contractors, as well as about the growing strength of the Taliban and, if Mr. Pelton is to be believed, its al Qaeda allies.
Mr. Pelton notes the similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam; contractors were employed on secret missions in the earlier war as well. Vietnam was also the crucible for many of the retired military who form the bulk of in-theater contractor support for U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq. Those who argue for expanding the role of contractors in military operations — some would even have them replace U.N. peacekeeping forces — speak not only of the economies and efficiencies that would result from their employment, but also of the far greater effectiveness that battle-tested Western contractors would bring to their missions.
But contractors remain answerable first to their managers, second to their shareholders, and only third to their customers. In the case of individuals and closely held corporations, they are essentially their own shareholders. The prospects for an international regulatory regime, such as that which Professor Kinsey proposes, are not bright, at least in the short term. Will such contractors, therefore, be able to achieve the policy goals that nations seek above and beyond the battlefield? Or will their behavior, unregulated as it is, end up making those goals less achievable?
Finally, contractors may not even achieve their business objectives in the long run. Firms that get the reputation for making things worse may trigger regulatory and legal backlash (as they have in the United Kingdom) or simply lose their customers. Companies that are hired because they play fast and loose with the constraints of military ethics are more likely to play fast and loose with business principles as well — and may thus be less viable as long-term business enterprises.
Those who read these three books will come to an inescapable conclusion: No matter how capable military contractors might be when deployed in combat-related areas, they will not achieve the aims of the governments that hired them. To be sure, they will remain an important supplement to military forces, providing critical noncombat service support that would otherwise have to be performed by highly trained servicemen and servicewomen who are best employed in combat roles. But military contractors cannot act effectively as soldiers in the long run. Worse still, they may well undermine their clients’ military aims, because they will add to the resentments of those already embittered populations that view the United States as an alien occupier.
Despite the glory that Colonel Schumacher ascribes to such contractors, and the wealth that Professor Kinsey and Mr. Pelton claim they have earned, undermining military aims is exactly what they appear to be doing in Iraq, and perhaps in Afghanistan. When all is said and done, the political and strategic consequences of their activities in both countries are still unknown — and as has often been the case with mercenaries in the past, we will not be in a position to judge the results until it is too late to do anything about them.
All three books provide a valuable perspective on a business that is murky and misunderstood. Professor Kinsey’s stands out among the three for its academic rigor and clearly documented research. Nevertheless, for a combination of sheer readability and shrewd analysis, as well as valuable reportage, Mr. Pelton’s volume is the most compelling. It rightly claims its place as the best book on its subject in 2006.