Privatizing Combat - the
New World Order
by Laura Peterson and Phillip
The Public i - Center for
Public Integrity, Nov/Dec 2002
In 1998, unbeknownst to most Americans,
the United States had a military presence in a remote African
war that drew little attention from the media. Unlike other U.S.
interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo, there was
no hand-wringing over whether a deployment was justified by U.S.
national interests, or whether the level of barbarity justified,
on its own merits, the deployment of U.S. troops on humanitarian
The conflict in Sierra Leone, in which
the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front displayed a ghastly
predilection for amputating the limbs and noses of their victims,
could certainly compete with the horrors of "ethnic cleansing"
in Bosnia and Kosovo and the man-made famine engineered by warlords
in Somalia. In November 1998, the RUF was in the middle of an
orgy of looting, murder and decapitation, an operation code-named
"No Living Thing."
There was international intervention aimed
at stopping the bloodshed. Sierra Leone's demoralized and underequipped
national army was bolstered by Nigerian troops-flying the colors
of the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG-and a handful of
South African mercenaries in helicopter gunships who made constant
forays into the battle zones to attack the RUF. In Freetown, the
country's capital, two large transport helicopters circled in
the air, backing up the Nigerian troops.
Painted on their fuselages were American
This small U.S. contribution to defending
Sierra Leone was not conducted by an elite unit of the Army, Navy
or Marines, but by a private, Oregon-based company, International
Charter Incorporated of Oregon (ICI),
managed in part by former U.S. Special Forces operatives. ICI
is one of several companies contracted by the State Department
to go into danger zones that are too risky or unsavory to commit
conventional U.S. forces. It also has been active in conflicts
in Haiti and Liberia.
ICI's role in Sierra Leone was to back
up the Nigerian troops, providing transport and medical evacuation
services. The hot combat, as one former ICI employee explained
to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists,
was left to the South African mercenaries. But ICI personnel inevitably
and often were shot at and forced to return fire, according to
team members interviewed by ICIJ, a right these sources claimed
was explicitly extended to ICI in a letter from then U.S. ambassador
to Sierra Leone, Joseph Melrose.
The State Department did not respond to
requests for comment by telephone or through the Freedom of Information
Act on whether such a letter was issued. ICI refused to respond
to a number of questions put to the company on several occasions.
The United States had little real interest
in Sierra Leone itself. U.S. involvement was driven by the fear
that the instability and anarchy caused by the RUF and its sponsor,
Liberian President Charles Taylor, would prove a danger to Washington's
ally Nigeria, an oil-rich nation that is the fifth largest supplier
of crude to the United States. For ICI, the mission to Freetown
was business, but it also advanced U.S. foreign policy.
ICI's deployment is part of a global trend
of military outsourcing and foreign policy by proxy that has become
far more common since the end of the Cold War. With the collapse
of the Soviet Union, the nature of international conflict shifted
from U.S.-Soviet competition in client states to regional and
ethnic conflicts requiring peacekeeping or other engagement. At
the same time, the end of the Cold War resulted in reduced superpower
defense budgets, forcing even high-ranking military officers to
sell their talents in the public sector. This collision of supply
and demand resulted in a new age of military and security services
on the world market.
In fact, a nearly two-year investigation
by ICIJ identified at least 90 private military companies, or
PMCs (as some of these new millennium mercenaries prefer to be
known), that have operated in 110 countries worldwide. Most of
these companies-defined as providing services normally carried
out by a national military force, including military training,
intelligence, logistics, combat and security in conflict zones-are
headquartered in the United States, Britain and South Africa,
though the vast bulk of their services are performed in conflict-ridden
areas of Africa, South America and Asia. Eleven of the companies
identified by ICIJ are no longer active, and the operational status
of 18 others could not be determined.
"Mercenaries" are officially
outlawed under Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, which defines
them as persons recruited for armed conflict by or in a country
other than their own and motivated solely by personal gain. However,
few modern PMCs fit that definition and, indeed, spokesmen for
such companies insist they rarely engage in combat and provide
military skills only to legitimate, internationally recognized
governments. The ICIJ investigation found that a wide range of
companies-from large corporations that offer military training,
security, landmine clearance and military base construction to
start-up entrepreneurs offering combat services and tactical training-are
in what has become the complex and multibillion-dollar business
Since 1994, the U.S. Defense Department
has entered into 3,061 contracts with 12 of the 24 U.S.-based
PMCs identified by ICIJ, a review of government documents showed.
Pentagon records valued those contracts at more than $300 billion.
More than 2,700 of those contracts were held by just two companies:
Kellogg Brown & Root and Booz Allen Hamilton. Because of the
limited information the Pentagon provides and the breadth of services
offered by some of the larger companies, it was impossible to
determine what percentage of these contracts was for training,
security or logistical services.
The U.S. Defense Department has increasingly
turned to outside vendors for logistical support, one of the most
heavily outsourced sectors for the armed forces in both peacekeeping
and wartime. In Bosnia, for example, the ratio of contractors
to American soldiers has ranged from one in 10 to nearly one-to-one,
according to various defense analysts.
The strong links between the U.S. government
and many of the private military companies that contract with
them has presented questions regarding the revolving door between
government and the private sector. In 1992, the Pentagon, then
headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid Brown & Root
Services $3.9 million to produce a classified report detailing
how private companies could help provide logistics for American
troops in potential war zones. Later in 1992, the Pentagon gave
Brown & Root an additional $5 million to update the report.
Brown & Root (now called Kellogg Brown & Root, or KBR)
is a subsidiary of Halliburton Corporation, which Cheney, the
U.S. vice president, headed as CEO from 1995 to 1999. Brown &
Root was also awarded contracts in 1995 and 1997 to provide logistical
support in the Balkans, where the U.S. military has been enforcing
the 1995 Dayton Peace accord that ended the war in former Yugoslavia.
Those contracts mushroomed to $2.2 billion worth of payments over
five years, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative
arm of Congress.
Wall Street has noticed the booming business
of both foreign and domestic PMCs. Security companies with publicly
traded stocks reportedly increased in value at twice the rate
of the Dow Jones industrial average in the go-go 1990s. Revenue
from the global international security market was projected to
rise from $55.6 billion in 1990 to $202 billion in 2010, an estimate
that has risen sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
on the United States.
As the industry continues its rapid growth,
foreign governments are trying to figure out how-or if-to regulate
it, thereby deterring PMCs from becoming vehicles for clandestine
foreign policy, arms trafficking, or simply waste and mismanagement.
The United States and South Africa are the only countries that
exercise some regulatory oversight of domestic PMCs; other governments
have acknowledged the need for the services PMCs offer, but have
yet to develop a structure to oversee them.
In early 2002, the British government's
Foreign and Commonwealth Office released a report titled "Private
Military Companies: Options for Regulation." The report argued
that PMCs could actually aid in low-intensity conflicts and proposed
regulating them as soon as possible rather than leaving them to
operate unchecked. Others, however, see PMCs as a potentially
destabilizing force accountable to no one. A January 2001 report
by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights stated that "mercenary
activities, by impeding the exercise of the right to self-determination,
constitute a violation of human rights" and recommended that
the commission reaffirm "the need to condemn and prohibit
any type and form of mercenary activity."
As governments outsource more tasks, foreign
conflicts grow more complex and defense companies merge into mega-corporations
that do everything from constructing military housing to producing
high-tech weaponry, the lines between security, training and logistics
companies increasingly blur. The expansion of services performed
by civilian entities raises several issues, including the lack
of transparency and public oversight, the performance of companies
motivated by profit rather than national interest, nepotism between
governments and their former employees, and the potential for
conflicts of interest as military companies diversify into various
Even within the U.S. military, outsourcing
on the battlefield has become a subject of growing debate. Concerns
include contractor accountability under U.S. and military law,
command flexibility and whether contractors require protection
by U.S. forces. The most pervasive concern, however, regards the
contractors' ultimate master. "Contractor loyalty to the
'almighty dollar' as opposed to support for/of the front-line
soldier remains serious questions [sic] which will be difficult
to test in a nonwarfare environment," an April 2002 U.S.
Army War College paper said. Noting that contractors can legally
terminate their contract in the face of danger in a combat zone,
the paper added: "We cannot let outsourcing and civilian
contracting compromise our fighting forces, nor our ability to
fight and win the next war."
That a small company like ICI has been
involved in so many operations is indicative of the changing nature
of war. The lean military of the new millennium cannot be everywhere
at once, so contractors fill in the gaps. That need grew exponentially
when the Bush administration responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks with its war on terrorism.
The increasing scope of the war has led
to a bonanza for PMCs. For example, Kellogg Brown & Root has
built camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for U.S. detainees and is
providing logistical support for U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan.
Many worry, however, that the oversight
system that monitors PMCs will never be able to keep up with the
sheer volume and geographical spread of the hundreds of Pentagon
contracts being issued. A May 2002 GAO report predicted that weak
oversight would remain a problem. "With the involvement of
contractors in the efforts to combat terrorism, the potential
exists for a similar condition (as in the Balkans) in Afghanistan
and the surrounding area." At the request of the Senate Armed
Services Committee, the agency has begun a review of the oversight
of defense contractors in deployment missions worldwide. That
report is due out in mid-2003.
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