Iraq and the decline of the state

The Sunday Times this week carried an enlightening article on private military companies, which highlighted the changing fortunes of Tim Spicer.

Seven years ago, in the “arms to Africa”
affair, Sandline broke a UN arms embargo to help re-establish Ahmad
Tejan Kabbah as president of Sierra Leone. The leader of the operation,
Lt Col Tim Spicer, a former Scots Guards officer,claimed he had done
nothing illegal, and that the British government tacitly supported him.

Today Spicer is chairman and chief executive of London-based
Aegis Defence Services, which oversees the estimated 35,000
private-security personnel in Iraq through some $400m (£225m) in US
government contracts, the largest the Pentagon has ever given for
private security. He has dropped the phrase “Private Military
Companies”, which suggests an attack capability, in favour of “Private
Security Companies”, which is entirely defensive. (Sunday Times)

Spicer’s renewed respectability perhaps reflects a number of trends that were highlighted by Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld as far back as 1991.


The spread of sporadic small-scale war will cause regular armed forces themselves to change form, shrink in size, and wither away. As they do, much of the day-to-day burden of defending society against the threat of low-intensity conflict will be transferred to the booming security business; and indeed the time may come when the organizations that comprise that business will, like the condottieri of old, take over the state. Meanwhile, and as has already happened in Lebanon and in many other countries, the need to combat low-intensity conflict will cause regular forces to degenerate into police forces or, in case the struggle lasts for very long, mere armed gangs. (The Transformation of War)

The number of shady characters who have gravitated to Iraq (both on the coalition and insurgent sides) supports another of Van Creveld’s points.

Once the legal monopoly of armed force, long claimed by the state, is wrested out of its hands, existing distinctions between war and crime will break down much as is already the case today in places such as Lebanon, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Peru, or Colombia. Often, crime will be disguised as war, whereas in other cases war itself will be treated as if waging it were a crime.

If Van Creveld is right, these trends are part of a long-term decline of the state as an institution. It’s ironic that, in Iraq, some of the world’s most powerful states are helping to accelerate that development.






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