PARIS -- U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed a clear aversion to war. As he said in his recent State of the Union address: "As a candidate for president, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars."
Trump has already ordered a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and a major withdrawal from Afghanistan, noting that a full withdrawal from Afghanistan is still on the table. Some members of the Washington, D.C., establishment might suggest that there's a better way to occupy a country forever while being able to claim a troop withdrawal: through the use of private contractors.
No thanks to Hollywood, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what private military contractors actually do these days.
There are already contractors active in war zones right now. In Afghanistan, they outnumber uniformed troops. They aren't performing in combat roles but rather serving in non-kinetic support roles. Because contracted entities are, by definition, privatized, their primary objective is to maximize profits for shareholders. In some cases, this means hiring non-Americans with American funding, in much the same way that other private companies exploit labor from the developing world.
There is, however, another type of private contractor -- paid mercenaries sponsored by the CIA to perform in an active combat role. For example, Brigade 2506 was a group of Cuban exiles trained by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion. More recently, the CIA trained rebels in Syria to operate on behalf of U.S. interests.
The advantage of using these types of operators is that they provide plausible deniability -- the ability to confidently declare that America has no troops in a particular region. The downside is that, as we've seen, they're completely uncontrollable and there's nothing stopping them from taking a better-paying offer, or from just cutting and running when their compensation for fighting is suddenly outweighed by the desire to remain alive.
The U.S.-backed Syrian mercenaries are a prime example. It was a program that cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars for each trained fighter. Not only didn't the rebels win the fight; they didn't even win the attendance award. Most ended up vanishing into the fog of war.
The only real Tier 1 Special Forces operators capable of winning a war are the Special Forces operating for the U.S. military. They're scalpels that are used judiciously, and with good reason. If a mission isn't important enough for them to be deployed, that mission probably isn't going to succeed if it's carried out by a lesser and lesser-known entity.
The other issue that arises with the use of mercenaries for the sort of combat that really belongs within the jurisdiction of Special Forces is that mercenaries aren't actually members of the military. This isn't just a small semantic detail -- it's everything.
How is a privately contracted non-state mercenary any different from Osama bin Laden, Che Guevara, or a member of Hezbollah -- or any other fighter that we in the West would categorize as "terrorist"? While it might be tempting to deploy such individuals for combat on behalf of American interests in a foreign country, how could that country view them as anything more than rogue actors who should be shot on sight? The Geneva Conventions are clear: "A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war."
Although it's perfectly legal to kill mercenaries when they're fighting in a foreign country, those who advocate for their presence often demand that the U.S. military be present in some capacity to protect them -- with air cover, for example. Not only would that mean that the U.S. government has loosened its control over the mission by handing it over to freelancers, but when those freelancers inevitably get into trouble, American soldiers have to bail them out -- which costs taxpayers money. Meanwhile, any profits from the operation go into the pockets of private interests. In other words, all the risk is socialized (and subsidized by taxpayers), while all the profits end up in the hands of a select few.
If a war is worth fighting, then it's worth fighting with a clear mission, and with professionals who have indisputable credentials and operate under a reliable and accountable chain of command. When there's talk of using mercenaries in a war zone -- which distances America from both control of mission and clarity of objective -- it's a sign that the conflict isn't worth fighting anymore and it's time to simply leave.