Afghanistan and the Marketplace of Violence

The following article was published in the online newsletter War TImes:


Afghanistan and the Marketplace of Violence

By H. Patricia Hynes

The national spotlight on U.S. troop escalation in Afghanistan has overshadowed the prevalence of private military contractors in that conflict. The number of Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan could grow to 160,000 as the number of U.S. soldiers reaches 100,000 in 2010, the highest ratio of private military contractors to soldiers in U.S history. The Afghanistan war has been called the first U.S. contractor war. It heralds a future in which waging war no longer requires citizens, only money. These corporate warriors are a potent but barely perceptible component of U.S. militarism and foreign policy. 


After 9/11 one of the few sectors to enjoy growth was the young market niche of private military contractors, known as “privatized military companies” or PMCs. These are lean, nimble global companies formed and managed in many cases by former military men and specialized in armed conflict services. They offer “expertise” for combat in conventional and counterinsurgency warfare; intelligence and spying; war logistics and strategy; training militaries and operating drones; building and servicing military bases; post-war de-mining operations and peacekeeping. Their clients include governments of all ilk from “democratic” to “rogue,” the UN and NGOs, rebel groups, paramilitaries and drug cartels.  Sometimes they contract with both sides of a conflict. Some garner business concessions in oil and natural resources in client countries, thus the cachet of conflict in resource-rich countries.

According to Allison Stanger, author of One Nation Under Contract (2009), PMCs have made the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan possible, given the low support of Allies.  Stanger observes that the core pillars of national security – intelligence, diplomacy, development and defense – are increasingly handled by private contractors, a troubling trend unremarked by most Americans.

Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute generated a detailed taxonomy of their militarized services and case examples of their clients and covert activities in his book Corporate Warriors (2003). He raises many vital concerns about the impact of war profiteering by military mercenaries – namely the jeopardizing of human rights in war, the increased traffic in arms, the profit motive as stimulant for armed conflict, and little public scrutiny. 


Here are five caveats regarding military merchants in corporate clothing:

1. Corporate profit vs. public good. Being in the “marketplace of violence,” PMCs rely upon and are positioned to promote continuous armed conflict, with few, if any, public checks and balances. Fraud is common: According to a federal audit of Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan, 16% of monies paid the contractors has been for “questioned and unsupported costs.” See:

2. Global glut in ex-soldiers and arms. Since the end of the Cold War, the market has been saturated with ex-soldiers and military weapons unloaded by governments to arms brokers. On the “demand” side of violence, the incidence of conflicts within countries has doubled since the end of the Cold War and zones of conflict have doubled as well, creating a perfect storm of opportunity for corporatizing war. 

3. Under the radar screen and outside the law. Contract and subcontract oversight of private firms in Afghanistan is severely compromised, due to distance and dependency on their services.  Case in point: a two year paper trail and a recent lawsuit reveal that ArmorGroup security guards for the U.S. embassy in Kabul have been involved in security lapses, drunken and lewd hazing rituals, intimidation of whistleblowers, petty corruption, abusive work conditions, and sexual predation. With little evidence of disciplinary action, except company assurance, and with virtually no other option at hand, the State Department renewed the ArmorGroup contract in 2008 and 2009. See:

4. Abuse; here are a few from a huge list:

*Afghan militias hired and armed as security contractors. Having fewer soldiers than needed for a counterinsurgency war, the U.S. and NATO depend heavily on private security firms for security and training of Afghan police. According to one expert on Afghanistan, security contractors “have hired, armed and trained local militias that were supposed to be demobilized and disarmed, enabling them to persist and profit as part of the ‘private sector,’ awaiting the spark that will set off another civil war.” See:

*Funding the Taliban. Between 10 and 20% of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts in Afghanistan – hundreds of millions of dollars – end up as extortion payments to the Taliban for protection of U.S. supply convoys from attacks on Afghan roads and highways. Further, many of the local security companies hired by the U.S. for the war effort are run by warlords. The “right war” is riddled with crime and contradiction as the Pentagon pays its enemies for protection. See:

*Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Women. The patterns of sexual exploitation by military contractors in the Iraq war provide insight into the war in Afghanistan. In an original study of military prostitution and trafficking during the Iraq war, the researcher concludes that the privatization of war – through heavy reliance on military contractors – has worsened the prostituting of women in war zones. Private military contractors are more seasoned and sophisticated about prostitution and trafficking of women and they have more disposable income than the military (some earning between $650US and $1000US per day).  When violating the U.S. military prohibition against involvement in prostitution they are not prosecuted; and they are accountable only to their companies. See:

According to a former manager of the PMC ArmorGuard security guards for the U.S. Embassy routinely frequented brothels in Kabul where Chinese girls had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. One guard bragged of planning to buy a prostitute for pimping her.  Other guards were alleged to be involved in sex trafficking also.  The whistleblower was forced from his job, and his requests to the company and the State Department for investigation were ignored for two years. See:

5. Risk of militarizing governments and non-state networks. There are many risks to peace and security in the proliferation of PMCs, among them: abetting repressive and criminal clients; promoting and sustaining conflict; enabling covert warfare; and moving the military industrial complex even more centrally from the public sphere to the private where the only checks and balances are shareholders. 


In the end, the use of private military may be more palatable to the U.S. public whose media reports the numbers of U.S. military deployed, injured and killed yet rarely spotlights the number of corporate warriors employed in conflict, injured and killed. Thus, a private military can be politically expedient for the government, given the fear of arousing public “war fatigue” with news coverage of soldiers’ deaths. Further, private military employees – many of whom are not U.S. citizens — relieved the government from instituting a draft to cover the personnel needs of two concurrent, stalemated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Private militaries make it possible for even the poorest countries to purchase the most sophisticated systems in the world and the capacity to use them. The dreaded outcome of the privatization of war is that some military companies would arm and train traffickers in weapons, drugs, and humans; terrorist networks; and “rogue states” – with the rationalization that if they don’t do it, another company will.

The inevitable breakdown of social order within war has hazardous results for civilians — most particularly the sex trafficking, rape and torture of women. Ceding armed conflict and ultimately national security to the private market of military contractors is a dire and disastrous trend. 


Sarah E. Mendelson. Barracks and Brothels: Peacekeeping and Human Trafficking in the Balkans. 2005. Washington DC: CSIS Press.

P.W. Singer. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 2003. *Source of term “marketplace of violence.”

Jeremy Scahill. Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Army. New York: Nation Books. 2007.

Allison Stanger. One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of American Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009.

Pat Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health, is on the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.  A longer version of this article can be found on the Traprock Center website at:

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