Analysis: Private armies- II

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent  |  July 18, 2002 at 10:00 AM
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SKOPJE, Macedonia, July 18 (UPI) -- Feb. 12, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office released a long-awaited briefing -- "green" -- paper in support of regulating the private military sector.

Quoted in Defense News, the paper stated: "The demand for private military services is likely to increase ... A strong and reputable private military sector might have a role in enabling the (United Nations) to respond more rapidly and more effectively in crises. The cost of employing private military companies for certain functions in U.N. operations could be much lower than that of national armed forces."

Regulation, though, has a poor record. All private military companies in the United States are subject to the porous and ill-enforced Arms Export Control Act overseen by the State Department. The Los Angeles Times is not impressed with the record: "Congress is notified only of contracts worth more than $50 million. Sometimes there are conflicting views of what is in the U.S. interest. And once a license is granted, there are no reporting requirements or oversight of work that typically lasts years and takes the firms' employees to remote, lawless areas."

Decisions often appear to be arbitrary and are mysteriously reversed. All major private military companies maintain lobbyists in Washington and function, partly, as rent seekers.

Still, private military companies often are the most cost-effective form of military operation. According to the U.N. special representative to Sierra Leone, the U.N. peacekeeping mission there costs more than $500 million per year -- compared to Executive Outcomes' $33 million spread over 21 months.

Regulation may amount to a belated acceptance of reality. The U.S. company MPRI -- Military Professional Resources Inc. -- boasts it already operates in foreign countries with the full knowledge and "license" of the American administration. It is a way to circumvent both the often withheld congressional approval needed for U.S. military involvement abroad -- and unwelcome media scrutiny.

The U.S. Army, in the framework of its Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, "preplans during peacetime for the use of civilian contractors to perform selected services in wartime and other contingencies. Utilization of contractors, in a theater of operation, will release military units for other missions or fill shortfalls." The ubiquitous MPRI is the program's main contractor.

Bahamas-incorporated Sandline also claimed British Foreign Office tacit approval of its mission in Sierra Leone. Most of these companies are self-regulating and selective. They won't render their services to organized crime, drug cartels, rogue states, terrorists, illegal arms traders and regimes known for flagrant violations of human rights.

The privatization of hitherto exorbitantly costly peacekeeping and humanitarian operations would bestow legitimacy upon these outfits and entice them to adhere to strict regulatory codes. Still, the exercise of violence is a prerogative of states and a hallmark of often hard-gained sovereignty. Many do not take kindly to the encroachment of morally neutral private sector replacements upon these hallowed grounds.

David Isenberg wrote in the March 11 issue of Defense News: "The only question is how best to address concerns about accountability, threats to a nation's sovereignty (i.e., usurping the state's prerogative of having a monopoly on violence), having a vested interest in perpetuating a conflict, violating human rights or acting as government proxies. The consensus opinion is that this is best accomplished through regulation."

The imperceptible line between "military advisers" and combatants often is crossed. The Los Angeles Times reports Vinnell employees may have joined Saudi National Guard units in battle against the invading army of Saddam Hussein in 1991.

MPRI personnel are alleged by Ken Silverman, in his book "Private Warriors" and by numerous media -- from the British journalist Paul Harris on Australia Radio National's "Background Briefing" to The Scotsman -- to have helped plan the Croatian occupation and ethnic cleansing of Serb-populated Krajina in 1995. Even the Foreign Military Training Report published by both the State Department and Department of Defense in May refers to these allegations against MPRI not entirely disparagingly.

Henry Sanchez of Rutgers University wrote: "States that hire private firms for security are usually financially poor but mineral rich. They often pay for services by offering concessions earned through diamond mining, oil drilling or other natural resources. An enterprising military firm may end up exploiting a poor nation of its modest resources. As a result there may be a new 'Scramble for Africa' over resources where no government exists or is desperate for help ..."

Few private military companies, if any, consent to any form of payment other than cash. Mineral concessions require heavy investments and existing mines require a logistical infrastructure often way beyond the expertise and financial wherewithal of the average firm. Such companies may be involved in influence peddling on behalf of mineral extractors or receive introduction fees and commissions from multinationals, though. These companies also make a lot of money on arms sales to their client states.

Consider Sandline International. It was never a shareholder in Branch Energy, DiamondWorks or any other real or imaginary mining firm it was associated with by sloppy researchers and journalists. Nor was it the successor to Executive Outcomes. Yet, the same people acted as directors or advisers in all these firms.

This incestuous setup led to the false assertions that Sandline -- and EO before it -- looted the mineral wealth of countries such as Sierra Leone and Angola. That many private military companies render security services to mining firms -- both state and private -- adds to the confusion.

The Financial Times mentioned the positive role "Southern Cross Security" played in keeping Sierra Leone's titanium-dioxide mines intact throughout the war. Others wrongly accused it of being an EO offshoot out to pillage the minerals it sought to protect.

Even Sanchez acknowledges "(others think that) a private company can deploy forces rapidly, avoid the difficulties of ad-hoc multinational forces (command is streamlined and cohesive), they usually have standing logistics for transport, appear to be cost-effective, and are willing to sustain loss of life."

Isenberg concurs: "It is time to recognize that today's (private military companies) are far different from the ad hoc organizations of the past. As experts such as Professor Herb Howe of Georgetown University have noted, many of today's companies exhibit a distinct corporate nature and a desire for good public relations. The companies' goal of obtaining contracts encourages them to control their employees' actions. Private firms have a large pool of qualified applicants due to worldwide political realignments and defense cutbacks since 1989 ... One thing is clear: The need for security from the private sector is going to increase dramatically. And PMCs are going to fulfill that need."

Private military companies have embarked on a concerted effort to alter their penumbral image. MPRI -- its Web site replete with literary quotes lifted from the works of Marcel Proust and other renowned soldiers of fortune -- has contracted with Enterprise Strategies and Solutions under the Department of Defense's Mentor-Protégé program.

MPRI explains: "ESSI's emphasis on economic well-being, technology transfer, corporate social investing, business incubation and knowledge management complement the vital safety and security roles performed by MPRI. MPRI has the added advantage of being able to utilize the skill sets of a small, woman-owned, veteran-owned business. MPRI and ESSI form a comprehensive team that enables them to perform on a wide range of projects that would otherwise be inaccessible for one or the other."

MPRI has branched out to offer corporate leadership programs that include the re-enactment of historical battles. It is a major provider of training, support and "other services" -- such as strategic planning and leader development -- to the U.S. armed forces, Department of Defense, the corporate sector and non-DOD government agencies. Its Web site -- a sincere stab at transparency -- lists dozens of military and semi-military contracts.

Its military contracts notwithstanding, MPRI emphasizes the humanitarian side of its operations. It claims it has "shipped more than $900 million worth of donated food and medical supplies to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union over a five-year period ... has provided peace keeping monitors for both the Department of Defense and the Department of State" and engaged in other charitable deeds, like de-mining.

In the Winter 2002 issue of "Harvard International Review," Sean Creehan summed up this shift in public perceptions: "Today's mercenaries still fight for money, but in the context of global capitalism, some groups are becoming less morally objectionable. The organization of mercenaries into corporations that function like consulting firms has put distance between them and their activities. Mercenary corporations' increasing efficiency and self-regulation is influencing the way legitimate governments view mercenaries as instruments of state policy."

In a British Broadcasting Corp. poll conducted in the wake of the British government's Green Paper about regulating soldiers of fortune, a reader named Katie raised important points regarding the corporate structure and liabilities of private military companies.

"The U.K. has a rather poor record of holding corporate officers responsible in any way for their actions ... Maybe military 'companies' should actually be restricted to being partnerships where the owners have unlimited liability similar to a lawyer's practice? Maybe a special class of company needs to be created for this purpose so they can be audited and tracked and to clarify their relationship with the government (for whom they act)," she wrote. "Essentially ... the directors of the company can be held responsible for war crimes as would ranking officers in the army. To some extent the 'corporate veil' needs to be thinner for these companies."

The United Kingdom -- and Australia -- promote a complete re-think of the concept of national defense. Britain's public-private partnership dubbed the "Private Finance Initiative" revolves around "paying privately for the defense we cannot afford publicly." Thus, transport planes, ships, trucks, training and accommodation may all be on long-term leases from private firms. The equipment will be leased to other customers during down time, reports the BBC.

After all, when rich countries pay poor countries to send their ill-disciplined, ill-equipped and ill-trained soldiers on peacekeeping operations -- isn't this a mercenary system in all but name? And atrocities are not the preserve of "dogs of war." American regular soldiers committed them in Kosovo and Japan, Nigerian conscripts perpetrated them all over West Africa, "national armies" are feared by their own civilians more than any mercenary troop. Is it not time to rid ourselves of self-righteous myths and privatize peace as we, alas too often, did war?

Part 1 of this analysis appeared Wednesday


Send your comments to: svaknin@upi.com

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