The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries. The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.
While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.
As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.
It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).
The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.
However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.
A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.
While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.
This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.
A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.
While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.