Could Mercenaries Take on ISIS?

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government urged counter-terrorism experts to think “outside of the box.” What we got instead of innovative thinking was a rather conventional response to the 9/11 atrocities - invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by thousands of dead American soldiers and trillions of dollars in military spending and foreign aid. Today Iraq is, yet again, in the midst of a civil war, with large parts of Iraqi territory overrun by homicidal maniacs from ISIS. Afghanistan, if its present government is to survive, would likely require decades of American presence – something I along with millions of other Americans oppose.

Whether or not ISIS poses a threat to our homeland (and there are many doubters), the U.S. political establishment is united in believing that ISIS needs to be taken on. But, what is to be done? On the one hand, the aerial campaign does not appear to be achieving desired ends. On the other hand, the American public is understandably opposed to another ground invasion.

The rise of the nation-state has led many people to look to their governments for solutions to problems big and small. The nation-state, in turn, has crowded out other actors. When it comes to the application of violence, for example, why not try the time-honored alternative to national armies - the use of mercenaries?

This morning, The Telegraph ran an interesting story  about an Eton-educated former Scots Guard and SAS man, Simon Mann. Mann became famous for partaking in an attempted coup d’état against the tyrannical ruler of the oil-rich African country of Equatorial Guinea,Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The coup failed, and Mann was caught and thrown in prison. Having miraculously survived 5 years in one of Obiang’s jails, he returned to Britain. Today, Mann advocates for a mercenary approach to defeat ISIS. Should he be given a serious hearing?

To start, it is important to note that mercenary activity is more common and more beneficial than most people realize. Mann’s “previous firm, Executive Outcomes,” writes the Telegraph, “halted rebel movements in their tracks in both Angola in 1993 and Sierra Leone in 1995, the latter against the drug-crazed, limb-chopping rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. On both occasions it was in support of legitimate governments, and while some may have questioned the millions they were paid, nobody ever doubted their effectiveness…. [E]arlier this year, one of …[Mann’s] old South African partners, Colonel Eeben Barlow, was back in action, this time fielding a force of fighters to help Nigeria defeat the Islamists of Boko Haram… [T]he group spent three months fighting alongside the Nigerian military, bringing with them years of hard-won experience in South Africa’s apartheid-era bush wars. They had only around 100 men on the ground, but even in that brief time, they turned a demoralized and badly-led army into a fighting machine that finally pushed Boko Haram from its north-eastern strongholds…. With many of their men recruited from South Africa apartheid-era security forces, neither Nigeria nor the wider world has been keen to fete this achievement. But the fact remains that a group of mercenaries - or, to give them their polite name, a private military company - has succeeded in defeating one of the world’s bloodthirsty insurgent groups, partly through sheer dint of being willing to put boots on the ground.”

This is not to say mercenaries would be a panacea. America’s recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with private contractors like Blackwater is a case in point. Blackwater employees were roundly criticized for reckless and unrestrained behavior, including wantonly killing civilians and bribing officials of foreign governments. Classified State Department cables, according to the New York Times, reported that the use of contractors “added to the war’s chaos in Iraq.”

Furthermore, it’s not clear that private mercenaries could overcome the internal political problems in Iraq and Syria, which ultimately is what gives rise to problems like ISIS.

But is a private-sector approach to battling ISIS qualitatively better than a U.S. reinvasion of Iraq? Possibly. Let’s outline some positives:

  1. No U.S. casualties, except for those Americans who chose to join the mercenary outfit willingly. By the way, some Americans have already gone to fight ISIS as part of the Kurdish peshmerga. 
  2. No need to spend years and billions of dollars in a futile task of building up the Iraqi military. A mercenary outfit could be maintained relatively cheaply. All it would need is access to a bank account into which anyone interested in destroying ISIS could deposit money.
  3. Anyone could join the anti-ISIS mercenaries: Arabs or Americans, blacks or whites, feminists and gay rights advocates. Hopefully, the multi-national and multi-religious nature of the mercenary force would dilute anti-Americanism in the region (i.e., the U.S. would no longer be seen as one of the chief participants in the region’s conflicts).  

On the downside, a successful push against ISIS would require U.S. aerial support and, presumably, intelligence sharing. But, the U.S. is doing that already - to very limited effect.

In the abstract, I do not see any principled libertarian objection to a multi-national and multi-religious mercenary force, which would be financed by anyone interested in the demise of ISIS. Heck, I would give them money.