Mercenaries or ‘Guns for Hire’ have been a part of war since humans first started to coordinate and live amongst each other in societies. In the classical era, Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek military leader, philosopher, and historian; who at the age of 30, was elected commander of one of the biggest Greek mercenary armies of the Achaemenid Empire, the ‘Ten Thousand’ that marched on and came close to capturing Babylon in 401 BC, which helped Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger in his failed attempt to usurp the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. This extended through to the famous mercenary armies of the Renaissance period, famously criticised by writer and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli for being a threat to their employers.
Recently, when the Russian Wagner Group hit the front pages of newspapers worldwide, it was described as a private mercenary group fighting in Ukraine. The New York Times said on June 30, that the Wagner Group provided security to African presidents, propped up dictators, violently suppressed rebel uprisings, and was accused of torture, murder of civilians, and other abuses. But the failed coup attempt by Wagner threatened, for a moment, the very existence of the group. A July 14 report on Cable News Network (CNN) quoted a Kremlin source as saying the Wagner group, which led a failed insurrection against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, was never a legal entity and its legal status needs further consideration. “Such a legal entity as PMC Wagner does not exist and never existed. This is a legal issue that needs to be explored,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. However, Peskov refused to disclose any further details on the meeting between Wagner head Yengeny Prigozhin and Putin, which reportedly took place several days after the aborted rebellion in June, 2023.
Besides Ukraine, mercenaries have been fighting in Central Africa, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. In Syria, there was a para-military group called Slavonic Corps providing security to President Bashar Assad battling a civil war–and later by the Wagner Group. And in Mali, there were over 1,500 mercenaries fighting armed groups threatening to overthrow the government. Paradoxically, the U.S. which once used the Zee and Blackwater Security Consulting Group during the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, has imposed sanctions on several African nations deploying mercenaries. Antony J. Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, said in early July 2023, that the United States was imposing sanctions on several entities in the Central African Republic (CAR) for their connection to the transnational criminal organisation known as the Wagner Group and “for their involvement in activities that undermine democratic processes and institutions in the CAR through illicit trade in the country’s natural resources.” “Death and destruction have followed in Wagner’s wake everywhere it has operated, and the United States will continue to take actions to hold it accountable”, said Blinken. The United States has also issued a new business risk advisory focused on the gold industry across sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, the advisory highlights “how illicit actors such as Wagner exploit this resource to gain revenue and sow conflict, corruption, and other harms throughout the region.”
However, and despite numerous national laws forbidding mercenary activity in the militarily advanced Western world, mercenaries have continued to flourish and thrive in the battlefields and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan–the two countries who suffered the most from the American imperial footprint in the 21 century. In the U.S., a mercenary is called a “soldier of fortune,” which is also the title of a widely circulated magazine, and subtitled the “Journal of Professional Adventurers.” The adventures—and misadventures—of mercenaries were also portrayed in several Hollywood movies, including ‘The Dogs of War’, ‘Tears of the Sun’, ‘The Wild Geese’, ‘The Expendables’, and ‘Blood Diamond’, among others. Perhaps the starkest example of the use of deadly force is when the American mercenary company Blackwater, which has since rebranded itself as Academi, used deadly force on unarmed civilians during the Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad in 2007, killing 14 and wounding others. The Iraqi experience was largely replicated in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre, with mercenary companies running logistics to various American and NATO bases, providing highway security for supply routes, guarding embassies and government installations, and even providing training to the Afghan police. Across Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the U.S’ Department of Defense had confirmed that, as of the fourth fiscal quarter of 2020, it had engaged the services of 27,388 contractors in those three theaters. Considering there were around 2,500 troops in Afghanistan/Pakistan, 2,500 in Iraq, and around 900 or so in Syria, one begins to appreciate the sheer scale of the “contractor” / “mercenary” economy and how reliant the U.S. and its allies are on it. While all the contractors might not be combat oriented, a significant proportion of them would be armed and would be protected under U.S. federal laws that allowed them to use “deadly force against enemy armed forces only in self-defense”. This means that, with the U.S. drawing down uniformed personnel, this already existent addiction to hiring soldiers of fortune is not going to reduce, but in fact the U.S. will become ever more dependent on them to remain relevant in theaters of war they have been forced to abandon.
Meanwhile, according to an article in the National Defense University Press, private forces have become big business, and global in scope. No one truly knows how many billions of dollars splash around this illicit market. “All we know is that business is booming. Recent years have seen major mercenary activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. Many of these for-profit warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America’s most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows.” The Middle East is awash in mercenaries. Kurdistan is a haven for soldiers of fortune looking for work with the Kurdish militia, oil companies defending their oil fields, or those who want terrorists dead, according to the article. “Some are just adventure seekers, while others are American veterans who found civilian life meaningless. The capital of Kurdistan, Irbil, has become an unofficial marketplace of mercenary services, reminiscent of the Tatooine bar in the movie Star Wars—full of smugglers and guns for hire.”
According to a retired US marine colonel, Contractors matter because they have become a permanent element of the military force structure. They provide real advantages on the battlefield, including more flexible personnel systems. Service members are expensive and hard to recruit, so contractors fill the gaps. Further, administrations often cap the number of military personnel on the ground but exclude contractors. This allows commanders to accomplish their mission with fewer troops. As a result, operational or battlefield contractors came to greatly outnumber military personnel in the CENTCOM region (43,800 contractors to 15,000 military in October 2020). In Afghanistan, the ratio of contractors to military personnel increased from 1:1 in 2010-2011 to 3:1 at the end. As the US spent its final hours in Afghanistan, CSIS noted that more contractors had died (8,000) than US service members (7,000) in post 9/11 operations.
As for Pakistan, the role played by the state on behest of USA and KSA for creation of Pakistan/Afghan Taliban as Mujahedin to defeat former Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and then under great duress, playing supporting military, intelligence and logistic roles for US invasion of Afghanistan (2001-2021) has done more harm than good to the country, a hindsight view of course. Despite being a most important non-NATO Ally, and having suffered greater human, economic and socio-psychological losses, the horrors of year 2011 alone caused due to the presence and covert operations of Zee/Blackwater contractors in Pakistan under direct supervision and control of Langley/Pentagon is enough to give a remorseful shudder i.e. the Raymond Davis incident in Lahore, Killing of Osama Bin Laden and attack on a Pakistani Border Army post at Silala in Mohmand area on Pak-Afghan borders. The ghosts of TTA, TTP, BLA and BRA with many offshoots etc. remain the hired guns available in the hands of the hostile intelligence agencies that continue to badly hurt Pakistan every day. Therefore, need to refocus on the new dynamics of ever evolving threats by being more proactive, adding more bite and paying back to the foes in the similar coins rather than opening up new fronts. Besides, on the pure internal and political front, there are quite a few notorious and feared politico-religious outfits who maintain sizable armed militias readily available as hired guns to any well-paying client to promptly emerge, create desired effects and then disappear with the same alacrity. In fact, anybody who is somebody in Pakistan with hefty coffers, proudly and shamelessly maintains private armed guards and militias to scare the mortals. However, never to forget that those who live by the guns, die by the guns.