Privatizing Combat - the New World Order

by Laura Peterson and Phillip van Niekerk

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 grounds.

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 flags.

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 of war.

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 business ventures.

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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