The shocking deaths in Fallujah of four private security workers this week raise fresh questions about an ancient practice that is now making a modern, corporate comeback.
With the US military stretched in multiple combat zones, a growing army of private security firms is filling the gaps - a trend that raises concerns about who is accountable for the high-paid security workers and the levels of risk they face.
The private security industry has "boomed since 9/11" says Peter Singer, an expert in the corporate warriors at the Brookings Institution here. "Since 9/11 the US military is stretched far thinner than it's ever been before, so you have a gap in supply and demand and private companies are filling it."
This private military industry, which emerged in the 1970s, gained steam with the end of the cold war and apartheid, which freed up thousands of seasoned military troops - ranging from elite troops from South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States to the Gurkhas from Nepal. It "spewed forth a lot of capable people in the market," says Herbert Howe of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Today, it operates in more than 50 conflict zones around the world, with several hundreds of firms involved doing an estimated $100 billion in business each year, according to Mr. Singer.
In Iraq, these private military firms collectively represent the largest US coalition partner, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 "troops" on the ground, he says. While casualties among these contractors are not tracked by the US government, an estimated 30 have died in Iraq so far and an unknown number have been wounded, outside experts estimate.
Those who join the firms - including Blackwater, the North Carolina company whose employees died in Fallujah - are often capable and seasoned military veterans, having traveled the world, learned languages, and engaged in combat in multiple hotspots.
At the prime of their careers, they're drawn by salaries at least double or triple their military pay. And they don't mind the dangers of places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. US firms recruit former Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces (Green Berets), and Delta Force commandos, who retire from the military only to take on equally risky work for much higher pay.
Indeed, competition over the elite troops from private companies is so intense that it has recently spurred the US Special Operations Command to formulate new pay, benefits, and educational incentives to try to retain them. "Competition with the civilian world has never been greater," said Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, commander of the 49,000-strong US Special Operations Command, in congressional testimony.
Still, the proliferation of such private firms in conflict zones is raising questions over their own accountability and protections - and the motivations of the governments that hire them.
While the horrific nature of the Fallujah killings marks an exception, hiring contractors generally imposes "less political accountability and less political repercussions because these are not our boys being killed," says Mr. Howe. "If you get highly skilled people whose deaths do not carry the same political baggage, it makes political sense to hire these guys."
From a financial standpoint, private security workers cost more than US troops, but they are hired only when needed and are paid for services rendered.
At the same time, however, such private firms may be more inclined to withdraw from conflict zones when violence flares. "A worrisome factor with private security is that these companies are under less obligation to remain when the going gets tough. A US soldier doesn't have that freedom," says Howe.
Efforts to create a legal framework for regulating the private military industry could address some accountability issues, clarifying the legal gray area in which these companies currently operate, says Doug Brooks of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, a nonprofit group of companies that offers services in conflict zones.
So far, however, the United Nations and broader international community have avoided creating such a regulatory system, he says. "The international community doesn't want to legitimize the concept by creating laws," says Mr. Brooks.
"Companies have been leading the efforts to regulate this industry ... operating in failed states," he says, to establish "guidelines for addressing grievances on both sides."
Another potential problem, some critics say, is that the US government employs private security workers to skirt restrictions by Congress on what US troops can do on the ground, as well as on troop numbers.
"It's a way to dodge political costs," says Mr. Singer. "For example, US troops can't get involved in civil war or with groups that have human rights problems ... so this is a way to go around that," he says.
Moreover, he adds, "it's a way to avoid the public costs when things go wrong," citing the little-publicized example of ex-US military workers being held captive today in Colombia. "You can imagine the outcry if three American soldiers were being held captive," he says.