Sean McFate writes: It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort. The armed contractors prove to be both a blessing and a curse, providing vital security services to the campaign, yet at times killing innocent civilians, causing strategic setbacks, and damaging the superpower’s legitimacy. Without these contractors, the superpower could not wage the war. With them, it is more difficult to win.
The armed contractors in question are not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in northern Italy, and the year is not 2007 but 1377. The superpower is not the United States but the papacy under Pope Gregory XI, fighting the antipapal league led by the duchy of Milan. The tragic killing of civilians by armed contractors did not occur in Baghdad but in Cesena, 630 years earlier. The military companies employed were not DynCorp International, Triple Canopy or Blackwater, but the Company of the Star, the Company of the Hat and the White Company. Known as free companies, these for-profit warriors were organised as corporations, with a well-articulated hierarchy of subcommanders and administrative machinery that oversaw the fair distribution of loot according to employees’ contracts. CEO-like captains led these medieval military corporations.
The parallels between medieval and contemporary private military companies (PMCs) are strong. Today, the US and many others hire contractors to fulfil security-related contracts in the world’s most dangerous places. In the late Middle Ages, such men were called condottieri – literally, ‘contractors’ – who agreed to perform security services described in written contracts, or condotte. Both modern and medieval contractors were organised as companies, their services available to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit. Both filled their ranks with professional men of arms drawn from different countries and loyal primarily to the paycheck. Both have functioned as private armies, usually offering land-based combat skills rather than naval (or aerial) capabilities and deploying force in a military manner rather than as law enforcement or police.
Mercenaries are back. Once brandished as villainous outlaws, they are emerging from the shadows to once again become a mainstream instrument of world politics. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has hired hundreds of Latin-American mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. After years of struggling against Boko Haram, Nigeria finally employed mercenaries to do the job, and they did. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has sent mercs to ‘liberate’ eastern Ukraine, a conflict that still simmers. Mercs are reportedly working in parts of Iraq. [Continue reading…]
Middle East Eye reports: An Australian citizen is the commander of an elite UAE military force deployed in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition, which human rights groups accuse of war crimes.
Mike Hindmarsh, 59, is a former senior Australian army officer who is publicly listed as commander of the UAE’s Presidential Guard.
The Presidential Guard is a unit of marines, reconnaissance, aviation, special forces and mechanised brigades, according to the US State Department website.
Hindmarsh oversaw the guard’s formation in early 2010 shortly after he took up his estimated $500,000-a-year, tax-free job in Abu Dhabi, where he reports directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
The Presidential Guard has been lauded for playing a key role in the Saudi-led coalition seeking to reinstall the exiled Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. [Continue reading…]
Der Spiegel reports: His war only lasted from one dawn to the next. When the sun rose for the second time over the Syrian city of Aleppo, Murad, a farmer from Afghanistan, was still cowering on the second floor of the house he was supposed to defend to the death. That, at least, is what his Iranian officer had ordered him to do.
How, though, did he get to this war-torn city far away from his village in the mountains of Afghanistan? All he had wanted was an Iranian residence permit, he says. But at the end of his trip, he found himself fighting as a mercenary in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Bashar Assad regime.
On that morning in Aleppo, Murad didn’t know how many from his unit were still alive, nor did he know where he was or who he was fighting against. His four magazines had been empty for hours. When a violent explosion caused the house he was in to collapse, he found himself thinking about his daughters, he says. “I screamed and thought I was suffocating. And then, everything around me was quiet.”
Men arrived and pulled Murad, who was still screaming, out of the rubble. He was lucky, even if he didn’t see it that way at first. “I thought they would kill me immediately. But they bandaged me up and took me to their quarters. There was someone there who spoke a bit of Persian and he told me I didn’t need to be afraid.”
That was seven months ago. Since then, Murad and another Afghan have been sitting in a makeshift prison belonging to the al-Shamiya Front, one of Aleppo’s larger rebel formations. They are being held in a neon-lit basement, next to a roaring generator. The walls are crumbling, a product of the myriad explosions that have shaken the city. In addition to Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians have also been taken prisoner by other rebel groups, all of them fighting on the front lines. [Continue reading…]
In an interview with the Atlantic, Sean McFate says: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.
Look at what’s going on in Nigeria right now. If those mercenaries hired by Nigeria that killed Boko Haram are actually succeeding — and it looks like they are, according to reports — and there’s not a whole lot of backlash in the international community, I can imagine somebody saying, well let’s do this against al-Shabab [in Somalia]. And I could also imagine private military actors showing up and saying, you know, when you hired those mercenaries in Nigeria, they were really effective but they were really expensive. I can do the exact same thing they did at one-tenth the price by using this fleet of 200 drones that are armed. So I can see a situation of arms escalation, trying to get to price points that make sense for consumers, if you will. I hate to commodify conflict that way, but that’s kind of what this industry’s about.
[Private armies] also can maybe do things that the national army maybe can’t do. So they offer plausible deniability to policymakers. They can go and commit human-rights violations, frankly. This is a common attraction about hiring private military companies or mercenaries — that they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government. [Continue reading…]
“Mercenary” is a word with lots of ugly connotations — not least for men who’ve been jailed for being mercenaries.
So, Bancroft Global Development, a private company based in Washington DC currently providing “military services” for the US State Department and the UN in Mogadishu, doesn’t like the term “mercenaries.” It describes itself instead as a non-governmental organization dedicated to finding permanent solutions to violent conflict. It also has what might be a unique distinction of operating in the United States as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit charitable organization.
The Obama administration clearly doesn’t feel comfortable employing mercenaries or “mentors,” as Bancroft’s soldiers call themselves, and so they get paid by the governments of Uganda and Burundi who then get reimbursed by the State Department.
Richard Rouget, the French-born South-African Bancroft employee who is the primary source for the New York Times article cited below, let’s the company’s PR mask fall momentarily and reveals a 19th century colonial mentality when he refers to his Somali adversaries as “savages”.
This is how GUD (founded in 1968) and a similar ultra-right group, Unité Radicale, were described in The Guardian:
Both the GUD and UR, founded in 1998, are rabidly racist, anti-semitic and anti-American, declared enemies of “global, cosmopolitan finance”, supportive of the September 11 attacks and believers in la France blanche .
While they profess to be genuine “nationalist revolutionaries” rather than neo-Nazis, the paraphernalia of the Third Reich is never far from their gatherings.
Meanwhile, through its creation of the Somali National Security Agency — an intelligence organization financed largely by the CIA — the Obama administration is backing what one Somali official says is becoming a “government within a government.”
“No one, not even the president, knows what the NSA is doing,” he said. “The Americans are creating a monster.”
The New York Times reports:
Richard Rouget, a gun for hire over two decades of bloody African conflict, is the unlikely face of the American campaign against militants in Somalia.
A husky former French Army officer, Mr. Rouget, 51, commanded a group of foreign fighters during Ivory Coast’s civil war in 2003, was convicted by a South African court of selling his military services and did a stint in the presidential guard of the Comoros Islands, an archipelago plagued by political tumult and coup attempts.
Now Mr. Rouget works for Bancroft Global Development, an American private security company that the State Department has indirectly financed to train African troops who have fought a pitched urban battle in the ruins of this city against the Shabab, the Somali militant group allied with Al Qaeda.
The company plays a vital part in the conflict now raging inside Somalia, a country that has been effectively ungoverned and mired in chaos for years. The fight against the Shabab, a group that United States officials fear could someday carry out strikes against the West, has mostly been outsourced to African soldiers and private companies out of reluctance to send American troops back into a country they hastily exited nearly two decades ago.
“We do not want an American footprint or boot on the ground,” said Johnnie Carson, the Obama administration’s top State Department official for Africa.
A visible United States military presence would be provocative, he said, partly because of Somalia’s history as a graveyard for American missions — including the “Black Hawk Down” episode in 1993, when Somali militiamen killed 18 American service members.
Still, over the past year, the United States has quietly stepped up operations inside Somalia, American officials acknowledge. The Central Intelligence Agency, which largely finances the country’s spy agency, has covertly trained Somali intelligence operatives, helped build a large base at Mogadishu’s airport — Somalis call it “the Pink House” for the reddish hue of its buildings or “Guantánamo” for its ties to the United States — and carried out joint interrogations of suspected terrorists with their counterparts in a ramshackle Somali prison.
And while Washington continues to look at Somalia through the mind-numbing prism of “global terrorism,” the people of this war-torn nation struggle to survive.
A staggering ten percent of children under five are now dying from starvation every 11 weeks.
Ten per cent of Somali children aged under five are dying every 11 weeks in the country’s devastating famine, which is spreading faster than aid agencies can cope with, UN officials warned on Wednesday.
The UN representative to Somalia also told the UN Security Council that warlords will take control of areas of Mogadishu abandoned by Islamist insurgents last weekend unless the transitional government quickly gets a grip.
The envoy, Augustine Mahiga, said about half the Somali population, about 3.7 million people, are now at risk from famine. The UN estimates that more than 12 million are affected across East Africa.
Across the famine zone, more than 13 children out of every 10,000 aged under five die each day, Mahiga said. ‘This means that 10 per cent of children under five are dying every 11 weeks. These figures are truly heart-wrenching,’ the envoy told the council, appealing for greater international assistance.
The UN has asked for one billion dollars for Somalia, but Catherine Bragg, the deputy UN emergency relief coordinator, said less than half the sum has been raised.
The New York Times reports from Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates:
Late one night last November, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian men touched down in this glittering seaside capital. Whisked through customs by an Emirati intelligence officer, the group boarded an unmarked bus and drove roughly 20 miles to a windswept military complex in the desert sand.
The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.
Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times.
The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.
The U.A.E.’s rulers, viewing their own military as inadequate, also hope that the troops could blunt the regional aggression of Iran, the country’s biggest foe, the former employees said. The training camp, located on a sprawling Emirati base called Zayed Military City, is hidden behind concrete walls laced with barbed wire. Photographs show rows of identical yellow temporary buildings, used for barracks and mess halls, and a motor pool, which houses Humvees and fuel trucks. The Colombians, along with South African and other foreign troops, are trained by retired American soldiers and veterans of the German and British special operations units and the French Foreign Legion, according to the former employees and American officials.
In outsourcing critical parts of their defense to mercenaries — the soldiers of choice for medieval kings, Italian Renaissance dukes and African dictators — the Emiratis have begun a new era in the boom in wartime contracting that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And by relying on a force largely created by Americans, they have introduced a volatile element in an already combustible region where the United States is widely viewed with suspicion.
Marshall Adame is a Democrat running for Congress in North Carolina’s 3rd District, a jurisdiction along the Tar Heel state’s low-lying eastern coast that is home to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, Air Station Cherry Point, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, as well as Blackwater Worldwide’s 7,000-acre corporate headquarters and training facility. Adame is an underdog in the congressional race, where he will likely face seven-term Republican incumbent Walter B. Jones—who brought the term “freedom fries” to Congress—in the general election. Jones has since become an opponent of the Iraq war, atoning for his vote to authorize the war by writing letters of condolence to the families of dead soldiers—a “mea culpa to my Lord,” he says. But the incumbent and his Republican party are not the only obstacles Adame will have to overcome if he hopes to take over the 3rd District’s congressional seat. He also faces tough opposition from Blackwater. [complete article]
Last week in Currituck County, N.C., Superior Court Judge Russell Duke presided over the final step in securing the first criminal conviction stemming from the deadly actions of Blackwater Worldwide, the Bush administration’s favorite mercenary company. Lest you think you missed some earth-shifting, breaking news, hold on a moment. The “criminals” in question were not the armed thugs who gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded more than 20 others in Baghdad’s Nisour Square last September. They were seven nonviolent activists who had the audacity to stage a demonstration at the gates of Blackwater’s 7,000-acre private military base in North Carolina to protest the actions of mercenaries acting with impunity — and apparent immunity — in their names and those of every American. [complete article]
Justice Department officials have told Congress that they face serious legal difficulties in pursuing criminal prosecutions of Blackwater security guards involved in a September shooting that left at least 17 Iraqis dead.
In a private briefing in mid-December, officials from the Justice and State Departments met with aides to the House Judiciary Committee and other Congressional staff members and warned them that there were major legal obstacles that might prevent any prosecution. Justice officials were careful not to say whether any decision had been made in the matter, according to two of the Congressional staff members who received the briefing.
The staff members, who asked not to be identified, disclosed details of the meeting in interviews this week.
The December briefing took place after a federal grand jury had been convened in the case, suggesting that prosecutors had decided to begin hearing testimony with potential prosecution problems still unresolved. [complete article]
Highly promising figures that the administration cited to demonstrate economic progress in Iraq last fall, when Congress was considering whether to continue financing the war, cannot be substantiated by official Iraqi budget records, the Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday.
The Iraqi government had been severely criticized for failing to spend billions of dollars of its oil revenues in 2006 to finance its own reconstruction, but last September the administration said Iraq had greatly accelerated such spending. By July 2007, the administration said, Iraq had spent some 24 percent of $10 billion set aside for reconstruction that year.
As Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, prepared in September to report to Congress on the state of the war, the economic figures were a rare sign of progress within Iraq’s often dysfunctional government.
But in its report on Tuesday, the accountability office said official Iraqi Finance Ministry records showed that Iraq had spent only 4.4 percent of the reconstruction budget by August 2007. It also said that the rate of spending had substantially slowed from the previous year. [complete article]
“There are many questions as to how a myriad of heavily armed private armies can serve the purpose of the US military and foreign policy,” writes Robert Young Pelton, in Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.
Pelton has traveled with both military and private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the conflict. He describes the new terrain shaped by outsourcing and reports that it bears little resemblance to the noble enterprise sold to the military years ago. Five years into operations, it is a darkly obscured landscape of violence, profiteering, and negligence. He senses that this parallel army is undermining the entire mission, leading to “blowback of extraordinary proportions.”
“It strikes at the core of the entire American principle, the idea of the citizen soldier,” he tells TAC. “We’ve been fighting this war longer than World War II, and the military is absolutely dependent on the private sector.” [complete article]
The Afghan government and its international partners are struggling to bolster the country’s security forces, fighting the twin problems of boosting the numbers of the national army and trying to disband illegal armed groups.
Yet, an unmonitored, unregulated and unauthorized force is on the streets, not just under the noses of authorities but also hired and legitimized by those working on building the security sector.
As many as 28,000 armed personnel are hired by private security companies (PSCs), which have been operating as a lucrative business in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001, providing protection to foreigners and elite Afghans, guarding institutions, homes and individuals.
The number of armed contractors is more than half the Afghan National Army, which is estimated at between 35,000 to 50,000, and could be larger if the numbers of “irregular” forces are added to the ranks of legal contractors. [complete article]
The Iraqi Cabinet today approved and sent on to parliament a proposed law repealing the immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts that has been extended to foreign security contractors operating in the country.
A government statement said foreign security companies, their employees and contractors would be subject to Iraqi laws and the judicial system, and “all immunities they have are canceled.” It also said the law would require them to cooperate with Iraqi rules governing visas, weapons possession, vehicle licensing and taxation.
“The reason this law is being passed is basically to stop these security companies and American contractors from thinking that Iraqi blood is cheap and that they couldn’t be prosecuted,” said Adil Barwari, a member of parliament from the Kurdistan Democratic Party who sits on the security and defense committee, which will now review the legislation. “It’s something to make them think before they act.” [complete article]
See also, Immunity jeopardizes Iraq probe (WP) and Officials: Blackwater guards offered limited immunity (CNN).
For months, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, has been threatening, subpoenaing and just plain badgering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come before his panel to answer questions about the run-up to the Iraq war, corruption and State Department contracting.
Today, Rice will finally appear. But Waxman (D-Calif.) has not spent the week on a victory lap. He has found time to produce evidence accusing State Department security contractor Blackwater Worldwide of tax evasion, to fire off a letter to Rice demanding information about alleged mismanagement of a $1 billion contract to train Iraqi police, and to hold a hearing on uranium poisoning on Navajo land.
Waxman has become the Bush administration’s worst nightmare: a Democrat in the majority with subpoena power and the inclination to overturn rocks. But in Waxman the White House also faces an indefatigable capital veteran — with a staff renowned for its depth and experience — who has been waiting for this for 14 years. [complete article]
The State Department’s security chief was forced to resign yesterday after a critical review found that his office had failed to adequately supervise private contractors protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
Richard J. Griffin, a former Secret Service agent who was once in charge of presidential protection, was told by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, John D. Negroponte, to leave office by Nov. 1. Griffin’s chief deputy, Gregory B. Starr, will become acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security.
Griffin is the first senior official to lose his job over the widening private-contractor scandal. Under fire from Congress, the U.S. military and the Iraqi government after the Sept. 16 contractor killing of 17 Iraqi civilians, Rice on Tuesday ordered extensive changes in diplomatic security arrangements in Iraq and pledged stronger oversight. A high-level panel she appointed to review the Iraq operation recommended Griffin’s departure along with the other changes, according to State Department sources. [complete article]
The Blackwater USA compound here is a fortress within a fortress. Surrounded by a 25-foot-high wall of concrete topped by a chain-link fence and razor wire, the compound sits deep inside the heavily defended Green Zone, its two points of entry guarded by Colombian Army veterans carrying shotguns and automatic rifles.
In the mazelike interior, Blackwater employees live in trailers stacked one on top of the other in surroundings that one employee likens to a “minimum-security prison.”
Since Sept. 16, when Blackwater guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, the compound has begun to feel more like a prison, too. On that day, employees of Blackwater, a private security firm hired to protect American diplomats, responded to what they called a threat and killed as many as 17 people and wounded 24. [complete article]
In the days after Usama Abbass was shot dead in a Baghdad traffic circle by security guards working for Blackwater USA, his brother visited the U.S.-run National Iraqi Assistance Center seeking compensation.
Like other Iraqis who have done the same, he learned a harsh truth: The center in Baghdad’s Green Zone handles cases of Iraqis claiming death or damages due to military action, but not due to actions of private contractors such as Blackwater, who work in Iraq for the U.S. government, private agencies and other governments.
“There will be no compensation because the American Army did not kill your brother,” an apologetic U.S. soldier told Abbass’ brother, who did not want his name published. [complete article]
As the Bush administration deals with the fallout from the recent killings of civilians by private security firms in Iraq, some officials are asking whether the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants under international agreements.
The question is an outgrowth of federal reviews of the shootings, in part because the U.S. officials want to determine whether the administration could be accused of treaty violations that could fuel an international outcry.
But the issue also holds practical and political implications for the administration’s war effort and the image of the U.S. abroad.
If U.S. officials conclude that the use of guards is a potential violation, they may have to limit guards’ tasks in war zones, which could leave more work for the already overstretched military. [complete article]