Leading article: Privatisation has no place in war

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According to a report released today by the charity, War on Want, the number of British security guards currently employed by private companies in Iraq is almost three times the number of British troops in the country. The report asks how Britain, and presumably the United States, can hope to restore peace and security in Iraq while they allow mercenary armies to operate outside the law.

It is a valid question. The anarchy that currently plagues so much of Iraq owes much to the many militia forces the lack of security has spawned. Unless these militias can be brought under control, either by being disarmed or by being incorporated in a national army, there is little hope that order can be restored. The last thing, it might be thought, that Iraq needed now was a proliferation of additional armed groupings, run by foreign companies. The fragmentation of authority in Iraq is bad enough among Iraqis, without a dissipation of outside authority adding to the mess.

The point is that private security guards, as employed in Iraq, are essentially mercenaries. They are performing duties that would in the very recent past have been the responsibility of armed forces: the Iraqi armed forces, if they were fully trained; the British or US army so long as Iraq is occupied. The first obligation of these security guards is to the company that pays them. Such is the demand for security that these companies are piling up staff numbers and profits.

The fear is that the British government is contracting out functions that ought to be performed by the British armed forces, with the discipline and accountability this should imply. The benefits for the Government, though, are clear. The employment of private security guards keeps the number of regular British soldiers in Iraq to a minimum. In future it could also expedite a British military withdrawal.

We share the misgivings voiced by War on Want. Our objections to escalating use of private security guards in Iraq are not just to the practice, though, but also to the principle.

From time to time the argument surfaces about the supposed merits of a mercenary army as opposed to a national army maintained by the state. It is a theme dear to enthusiasts of the unfettered free market and a perennially engaging subject of debate.

But always, once the unthinkable has been thought, the broad consensus is the same. A country's national security is too important to be entrusted to mercenaries; maintaining a national army is part of being a nation. It is not something that should be delegated - either to swell the coffers of private companies or to keep the mounting toll of military casualties out of the news.

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