U.S. Moves to Fill Power Vacuum in Africa

With the demise and departure of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries, American officials are selling American power, and American private military contractors, to Mali, Niger, and other troubled Sahel countries.

“The international community has a responsibility to empower AU (African Union) missions to respond to Africa’s growing security challenges,” remarked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “The financing resolution, which the UN unanimously adopted at the end of last year, is a major stepping stone to that end – putting African leaders at the forefront, and African people at the center.”

“Private contractors have played and continue to play an important role by providing logistical support, training, equipment and other capacity building,” said Jonathan Pratt, the Number 2 official for Africa at the State Department.

“With appropriate resources and oversight, private contractors provide efficient and effective means to enable troop- and police-contributing countries to deliver on this task.”

Contractor vs. Mercenaries

Control, or the lack thereof, might be the biggest difference between contractors and mercenaries.

Mercenaries operate in a legal gray area, which is one reason why so many countries hired mercenaries. These fighters usually come from several different countries, so no one judicial system has jurisdiction over their actions. If a misconduct, atrocity, or other such case goes to court, the mercenaries point fingers at nonresidents, and the case collapses.

For the same reason, no one country has military jurisdiction over mercenary actions, even though one country usually pays the bill.

Contractors, on the other hand, are accountable under U.S. law. Contractors who cross the line could be held responsible for their actions in both criminal and civil courts. This accountability was in the headlines several years ago. After several long trials, several contractors were convicted of firing on civilians in Iraq. Then-President Donald Trump pardoned them. He basically concluded that their actions took place in the fog of war.

U.S. law also preemptively limits contractors. Private military contractors may serve in defensive capacities only, such as escort duty and guard duty. They normally cannot go on patrol, and they certainly cannot participate in planned offensives.

Loyalty is different as well. Contractors serve mostly for their country, and mercenaries serve exclusively for paychecks. German Hessians who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War are a good example.

The U.S. relied heavily on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the British relied heavily on Hessians. These mercenaries (who were technically “auxiliaries”) made up about 25 percent of the British fighting forces in America.

Contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan would not have switched sides to the Taliban or ISIS if these terrorist groups offered more money. Hessians most likely would have changed sides in a heartbeat.

On a related note, the relationship between contractors and servicemembers is usually much better than the relationship between soldiers and mercenaries. Again, the Hessians are a good example.

One author recorded a disturbing encounter between a Hessian and a British regular. The Hessian “was assailed by ‘an Englishman in his cups’ with the declaration: ‘God damn you, Frenchy, you take our pay!’ The outraged Hessian replied: ‘I am a German and you are a shit.’ This was followed by an impromptu duel with hangers, in which the Englishman received a fatal wound.”

What Contractors Do

Mercenaries (or auxiliaries or whatever label is applied) fight, and that’s pretty much it. Private military contractors, on the other hand, perform three important roles in places like Sahel countries.


African insurgent groups hit and run against soft targets. Usually, they intend to attract recruits, not do real damage. To discourage such attacks, instead of increasing manpower, many government security forces rely on sophisticated weapons.

The stunning victory of a few English soldiers against a much larger French force at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 demonstrated the superiority of planning and firepower over a superior force. Back then, the superior weapon was the longbow. Today, superior weapons include smart missiles and drones. Today’s superior weapons require much more maintenance, and contractors often provide it.


According to George Pershing, armies win battles with weapons, but they win wars with men (we may be paraphrasing that quote). So, in the long run, training government security forces or rebel forces (as the case may be) may be a contractor’s most important role.

Sometimes, recruits are in poor physical shape, have never held a rifle before, have no sense of military discipline, and are otherwise completely raw. In these situations, contractors start from square one with basic PT, drilling, and other activities that soldiers hate.

Other times, training is more educational. Military academies teach students how to fight yesterday’s war. Government security forces need to know how to fight today’s war and tomorrow’s war, and they need to learn fast. Contractors are experienced in these situations, so they hit the ground running.

Training might be a hybrid. The trainees must learn new strategies and tactics to overcome enemies on the battlefield.


Behind every good man is a good woman, and behind every successful soldier is a dedicated private military contractor. Neither of these sayings is true in all cases, but they are true in most cases.

The first private contractors were support contractors, back in the Revolutionary War. Most cooks, medics, blacksmiths, and other support people were contractors. These individuals also had some military training. They could grab a musket and help defend the camp as a last resort.

Contractors still provide this support all these years later. However, the armies they serve also need them to pick up a rifle much more often.

Injury Compensation Available

Most injured victims must file written claims within 10 days. Some exceptions apply for repetitive stress disorder and other occupational diseases. These victims often aren’t fully aware of their injuries for months or even years. Most insurance policies require written notice, which means a text or email may not suffice. The best practice is to immediately send electronic notice and follow up with “snail mail” notice.

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If the initial settlement conference breaks down, a Defense Base Act lawyer usually schedules an appeal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. ALJs are much like regular judges. ALJs allow lawyers to introduce evidence, challenge evidence, and make legal arguments.

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