The following interview with David Isenberg [1] was carried out in Washington D.C., on January 15, 2014 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the definition of Private Military Companies (PMC), governmental oversight, the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the role of small arms in unstable states and the impacts of private contractors. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


. Definitions

The definition of Private Military Companies (PMC) is not something for which there is acceptance regarding what is included. A lot of people, when using PMC, have an image in mind, which is irrelevant and practically archaic, resembling the old Executive Outcome PMC. [2] That was the exception that proved the rule. Nobody is like that anymore, nobody does that thing. They decided for the sake of future contracts that this is not what they want to do. So that kind of PMC just does not exist anymore. The other part governed by my own past experience in the U.S. Navy is that being in the military is not like being in a PMC. A PMC does not have the training, they don’t have the accountability, they don’t have the table of organization and equipment, they certainly don’t have the institutional discipline despite claims to the contrary. I heard people like Doug Brooks [3] make the argument that because they are former military, they automatically bring this professionalism and discipline, which is complete crap. I have to say that because if you have ever been in the military you understand that you don’t have discipline and you don’t have professionalism unless there is an NCO [4] constantly looking over you and kicking your ass and making you do the right thing. The idea that you just have that because it is supposedly engrained in you by the end of some years in the services is absurd. If that was the case, there would be no need for a Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). [5] So I agree with Doug, they are not military organizations although the reasons for me to say that are different.

What type of PMC would you see as most important right now and in the future?

It really depends on your vision of the future, which cuts across international relations theory as well as demographic and environmental protection. If you take the environmentalists somewhat at their word, the world physically will become a more unpredictable place in the future. We will all experience secondary and tertiary effects of climate change, whether it will be temperature rises, increased migration, increased number of places around the world that become more unlivable and people have to move or there is fighting over resources, which leads to instability as well as market opportunities for various extractive firms. You can just look at what is going on in the Arctic where new waterways are created, new scrambles for resources, new industries moving in from traditional hydrocarbon firms to extractive mineral industries, all which will need to built new infrastructure that will need to be guarded. At the very least there is lots of future market opportunities for guards of all kinds. There will also be more humanitarian disasters, the need for people to deal with refugees, to build temporary housing, will increase. A number of Private Security Companies (PSC) are already involved in UN peacekeeping operations, providing support for them. They already do it to a significant degree and I expect this will increase even further. As various industries in the extractive sector and elsewhere will get bigger and move into new markets of opportunities, there are quite some that actually take a look around and have taken the pulse of the public. They have figured out, it is not only good PR but also good business to actually work in concert with local communities and local authorities. So I would assume there will be a call for people who are good with training what the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan when they stood up the Human Terrain System (HTS). [6] I won’t say there will be huge call for anthropologists but they will be more sensitive and receptive to the idea of working with village elders, local towns and building up institutions for the state, which have been shattered. What several companies did in Puntland, Somalia is a good example regarding working with local villages, reconstituting their coast guard, reestablishing fisheries and thereby driving down the need for people to resort to piracy. You will see similar things in Latin America. A lot of firms are paying good service to the business compact ideas that have been established by John Ruggie [7] and others.


. Governmental Oversight

When you talk about the PMC operating in those situations, where do you see the challenges for governmental oversight? Will governments continue to employ PMC?

I published a piece on my blog [8] about a study that was published last November by the Strategic Studies Institute on what Dyncorp did in Liberia: reconstituting the armed forces there. You talk about governments using PMCs, the biggest user currently is the U.S. Experience of the past decades shows that initially, at the time they went into Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq, they were relatively clueless. There is a lot of naïve people in government who actually bought the industry line of just give us the contract, we are professionals. That turned out to be a big load of crap. I could not begin to tell you the number of stories that the public has never heard in terms of which companies have screwed up. I got to work with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) [9] during its final year and they produced reports over the years on reconstruction in Iraq, most of which were critical of what companies and the government did together. There was a lot more to it that never made it into the reports. It is not that the things never happened, but the Justice Department decided not to pursue those things for its own reasons; they had a lot of evidence but not overwhelming amounts of evidence. The whole point of this is to show that the government did not do it well, and is still not doing it well. They will continue to employ these companies but there will be lots of problems until we get the coordination, oversight and accountability functions fixed. This is currently not taking place.

Among the main recommendations of SIGIR’s final report released last March was the establishment of an agency, which would just focus on doing the planning, before the contingency in which you would employ such a company actually occurs. They called it the U.S. Office of Contingency Operations. Until somebody does something like that, the same problems that you saw in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to occur time and time again. Some people within the industry are smarter and welcome the idea of the government educating itself on how to properly harness the potential and capabilities. The McFate study [10] says we can do a lot, we are not perfect. In an overwhelming part it depends on whether the government is smart enough and educates itself to properly supervise and manage PMC. It is a critical part as far as I am concerned. The government has not done that. Other governments, some in Europe, actually do it better as for one they are not as heavily dependent on the companies themselves. They don’t seek to outsource everything to them and are much more suspicious and much better equipped to do accountability and oversight because they outsource relatively less and have more people to properly supervise. There is a problem on the U.S. side, which is that most of the people that are experienced in doing oversight retired at the beginning of the decade. The Defense Contract Auditing Agency, [11] the Defense Contract Management Agency, [12] the various service investigative offices, they were all overwhelmed in terms of the ratio of investigators to contracts per se. Some of them were just starting out on the job, which is why they were calling people back from retirement and trying to get them back to work.


. Cases of Afghanistan and Iraq

In Afghanistan, with the discussion about a ban of PMC, many local implementers or mining companies said they would leave Afghanistan if they felt no longer protected. Do you think one could argue that PMC are enabling investment and aid projects in unstable states or is that a false assumption?

In Afghanistan, PMC per se have not been banned. They had to reregister as Risk Management Companies (RMC). People discuss whether it means they have to bribe the appropriate officials in the various ministries, as if that were something they were not already doing. You can not necessarily expect every company to actually abide by rules like the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. [13] I think they are right. It is unreasonable to expect that they would stay on the ground and do business in a conflict zone, if they could not provide assurance for the safety of their people. Whether you do that with expatriates who are brought in from outside or seek to work with people who are on the ground and native to that country is a question widely debated. Personally I think it is a no brainer solution that you seek to reduce the foreign component of it to as small as possible and seek to employ the largest number of host country people that you can. The reasons for that are obvious. People are going to be envious if you are giving those that are not even citizens of your country, can’t speak the language, obscene amounts of money while local people are starving. Again, if you read the McFate study, they made an effort because the Liberian government wanted it, but also because they realized that it made good sense to have the largest number of locals employed. It is a little different, because you can’t recruit people for the armed forces of Liberia who are not Liberians. But in terms of the training component, they could have brought in outsiders and they did bring in some but also sought to get former soldiers of the Taylor regime who were not guilty of war crimes to do the training as well. So again, you do want to get as many host country employees as possible. You want companies – PSC or PMC – providing security for the people in the respective industry. Everybody understands that they are not going to go, do their investment and build their infrastructure without that guarantee. Every market survey that has come out seems to agree with this, otherwise they would not project this being a growth sector for the industry.

From your experience with SIGIR, how did the protection of the oil pipelines and facilities in Iraq work in the post-conflict situation?

I came into SIGIR last year but from my recollection and past writings there are two components of this in terms of guarding Iraq’s oil infrastructure. The first part was early on when the insurgents started getting organized and decided to attack pipelines and pumping stations and refining facilities in Iraq, which oil industry has long recognized in other parts of the world as being vulnerable. What the Iraqis initially did was to contract it out to the British-South African Firm Erinys, which had the contract to train up a force of Iraqis to guard the pipelines. They trained up over 20’000 Iraqis and had a relatively small presence of expatriates, non-Iraqis who were doing the management and initial training, supervision etc. It was probably less than 100. But that was an independent force and was subsequently merged into the Iraqi Facility Protection Service (FPS), which became the official Iraqi security force and subsequently took everything over from recruiting, to vetting and to training. Erinys was out of the picture, but it was because of their initial effort in the training area that the Iraqis had their force. So it is important that while theoretically Erinys itself was guarding the pipelines, it was always Iraqis, organized by Erinys. This is the model for providing security in various conflict zones at present and in the future, where you bring in outsiders to train your own people, to equip them, to provide a managerial support structure, the overall institutional framework and strategy, which then they hand over to the government.


. Small Arms and Private Contractors

How do you see the link between PMC and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, especially when looking at local PMCs?

I did a small paper for the Small Arms Survey a couple of years ago. It depends on the nature of the company and on the terms of the contract. If you are talking about a U.S. company operating under a U.S. government contract, the U.S. government has the capability and includes it as part of the contract, how you get the weapons, how many weapons you can have, what type of weapons, the limit in caliber of the weapons etc. They detail how often they have to present the totality of the weapons they have for inspection by the U.S. government official, the U.S. military force or a U.S. military officer that might come and do the checks. In Iraq there used to be a military branch called Armed Contractor Oversight Bureau (ACOB), subsequently renamed Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate (ACOD). They would go out and do inspections of various PMCs. In the early days, some times they arrived in countries and for various reasons did not get the license from the State Department or the license arrived late and they did not have the weapons they needed, where after they went out on the streets and bought equipment. They were not importing equipment into the country, they were helping to support the black market, which was however already there and what they likely would have bought would not have been critical to the trade. Those people still would have been selling their weapons. That happened, was however statistically insignificant to the trade. The worst thing I can say about it are some cases, a handful over the years, in which PMC were found having weapons outside the specifications. It was clearly outside the terms of the contract but was not a common occurrence and happened outside Afghanistan and Iraq.

A bigger problem is not people buying stuff on the black market but people having something within the scope of their contract such as a Little Bird, as Blackwater had in Iraq. There you have a gunner and in a firefight the guy has a minigun or a .50 caliber, which he then can use against people. You have to speculate about how professional they are and it is conceivable that in the course of such an incident, the guy might be hitting someone who is not an insurgent but a civilian that gets wounded or killed. This is more of a likely problem than somebody bringing something into the country. Most of the major companies in Iraq or Afghanistan doing high profile security work, people guarding Bremmer or working under a State Department contract such as the Worldwide Protective Service (WPs) contract actually were under lots of regulations. You can argue that the State Department was more talk than action when it came to supervising people working under that contract, Erik Prince does a lot of unnecessary whining in his recent memoir. He is right when he says that the State Department prevented him from talking. You can’t talk to anybody without their permission. He is right what he says about that. The other part however is that when he found the terms of the contract so restrictive he was free not to renew it but found money too good and didn’t walk away from it. He took the King’s shilling so he had to take the King’s bidding. It’s one-way or the other, a whole package. If you don’t like it, walk away, otherwise man up. But it goes back to that there are lots of people in government talking about oversight and accountability and in reality don’t do anything. Most people looked at this and the Undersecretary for Diplomatic Security as a disaster. The number of times he has gone before Congress and said he takes responsibility for this, it is all on me, nothing ever happened, I lost count. It is unbelievably high.


. Unstable States and Impacts of PSC

What are the prime reasons for unstable states to allow for PMC to operate?

If you have instability, you need to address it through some sort of security mechanism, presuming we talk about armed security, it is simply a matter of taking advantage of the prospective suppliers who can make you a credible cost-effective bid with assurance of providing the degree of professionalism and abiding by the terms of the contract. Hopefully you have someone on the customer side who is smart enough to write a realistic contract stating what they expect and stating that you don’t get paid if you don’t perform up to the expectations. If you don’t do that, you can either choose a host country company or someone from outside. In Africa for example there are many companies that have been around for decades. I just heard from one recently: Delta Force Protection. [14] They have been doing domestic security for a couple of decades in Kampala and in all sorts of residential communities and malls, whereby they have done well. The advantage of getting an outsider firm such as G4S is simply a matter of resources. A multinational firm has deeper pockets, has access to a larger pool of people. Some significant people are truly professionals as opposed to someone just scooped off the street, have field experience, managerial experience and experience in project management. It is simply about having more resources to offer.

If PMCs hire locals, do you see a risk of taking away qualified people from the local police force or military?

Iraq and Afghanistan were different cases. It is a case of structuring the terms of the contract before anybody actually does something. I was really impressed by the McFate study because the process in which DynCorp went about vetting people was both very elegant and very creative. If you are willing to grant a company a certain amoung of latitude and creativity and don’t have an existing doctrine by which people are hired, there needs to be assurance that the personnel need of the PMC is not going to cut into the recruiting needs at a national level. In this case a credible plan has to be presented beforehand about how people are going to be recruited and vetted, because the need for providing security for whatever situation is going to be smaller than the need for the national military establishment or a national police force. As long as it is made clear in the beginning that this is a concern, they have to come up with a plan and show that the projects are not going to have a negative impact against the state’s needs.

What do you see as the biggest risk from having PMC operate in unstable areas?

There is a twofold consequence. One is a government that is a customer, not particularly educated and without the inclination because it is despotic, autocratic, tyrannical and has no respect of human rights. They want protesting villagers or peasants taken care of, without the industry bothered and in need to hire a bunch of local or serving members of the armed forces who commit atrocities. A company has to be serious about working in compliance with both national and international laws, which state clearly what they can and cannot do. The government has to write it in the terms of the contract and make it clear to the company that they will watch it all the time and they not only have to give periodic reports but will have people inspecting without advance notifications on the ground. They will have complete authority to go in and visit wherever they want, just like the UN inspectors making unannounced inspections in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Without a government that takes its responsibilities seriously and an equally committed company that does not just say it has to put up with this international human rights crap but understands institutionally that it is their reputation that gets them future contracts. It is a win-win situation. A lot of these firms starting out as private firms were headed by retired officers, whose formative experience was a) as a civilian you are an idiot and don’t understand how things work out in the field and b) you are the press, we don’t talk to the press. This was a very stupid notion. It was not until MPRI back in the Balkan contract hiring times, when a former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who had a policy of talking to everybody no matter how stupid the question, got in charge of talking to the press. That openness was a breakthrough for the industry.


Thank you very much for the interview.


[1] More about David Isenberg at:’s-pmsc-writings/.
[2] When referring to the operations of EO the most known case is Sierra Leone. More on this was written by Peter Singer in his book “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry: Updated Edition”, available at:
[3] An interview with Doug Brooks on this very issue is also available on:
[4] A NCO is a non-commissioned officer.
[7] More on this concept by John Ruggie:
[10] Sean McFate, “Building Better Armies: An Insider’s Account of Liberia”:
[13] The FCPA can be accessed at the website of the Department of Justice:
[14] Delta Force Protection is listed as one of the Security Companies operating in Uganda:

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