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Blackwater Worldwide and the Role of Mercenaries in 21st Century Armed Conflicts Print
Part I - 07.06.08
Outsourcing is one of the givens of the 21st century global economy. This includes armed security services. No one realizes this more than the George W. Bush. In waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration relies to a large extent on private guards . Or, more to the point, on mercenaries.
According to the New York Times, the United States is dependent on 30,000 or so private guards to plug the holes in its understaffed military forces.

Patrick Kennedy, the Undersecretary of State for management was quoted as saying:

    We cannot operate without private security firms in Iraq. If the contractors were removed, we would have to leave Iraq.

The preeminent firm responsible for supplying today’s global mercenaries is Blackwater Worldwide, based in North Carolina. Gone are the days when soldiers of fortune were considered as pariahs, derisively called the “dogs of war”, a phrase popularized by the eponymous 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth. Mercs have now gone mainstream.

Founded in 1998 by former Navy Seals, Blackwater Worldwide says it has trained tens of thousands of security personnel to work in hot spots around the world, according to the NYT.

The Blackwater training facility is so modern and well-equipped that Navy Seals stationed at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Va., routinely use it, military officials said. So do police units from around the country, who come to Blackwater for specialized training. The lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have given the company an even greater presence around the world, guarding diplomats and performing other security functions.

The business of so-called defensive killing has gone so corporate that Blackwater boasts of its own vision-mission statement, full of popular corpo-buzzwords and vague, broad objectives, thus:

    Innovation Begins with Experience

    Blackwater Worldwide efficiently and effectively integrates a wide range of resources and core competencies to provide unique and timely solutions that exceed our customers’ stated needs and expectations.

    We are guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world. Blackwater Worldwide professionals leverage state-of-the-art training facilities, professional program management teams, and innovative manufacturing and production capabilities to deliver world-class, customer-driven solutions.
    Our corporate leadership and dedicated family of exceptional employees adhere to essential core values- chief among these are integrity, innovation, excellence, respect, accountability, and teamwork.

And, oh yes, Blackwater mercenaries are now referred to as “global stabilization professionals.”

Blackwater has created much controversy in its heavy-handed handling of its contracted duties, most recently in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater personnel last September 16, 2007 in Baghdad. An F.B.I. investigation into the incident indicate that the company’s employees recklessly used lethal force in the killings. As it turned out, the massacre was triggered by “friendly fire”. The shooting occurred when Blackwater guards fired in response to gunfire by other members of their unit in the mistaken belief that they were under attack. Investigators found no evidence to support assertions by Blackwater employees that they were fired upon by Iraqi civilians. So much for coolness under fire. Notice that professional discipline is not one of Blackwater’s core values.

Despite this, and other deadly fiascos, Blackwater is flourishing. In fact, its contract with the U.S. State Department to provide security services in Iraq has just been renewed. According to the NYT:

    But after an intense public and private lobbying campaign, Blackwater appears to be back to business as usual.

    The State Department has just renewed its contract to provide security for American diplomats in Iraq for at least another year.

    Threats by the Iraqi government to strip Western contractors of their immunity from Iraqi law have gone nowhere. No charges have been brought in the United States against any Blackwater guard in the September shooting, either, and the F.B.I. agents in Baghdad charged with investigating whether Blackwater guards have committed any crimes under United States law are sometimes protected as they travel through Baghdad by Blackwater guards.

    The chief reason for the company’s survival? State Department officials said Friday that they did not believe they had any alternative to Blackwater.

Not to mention its alleged connections to the Bush administration. And the company is not likely to face any criminal charges. On October 29, 2007, immunity from prosecution was granted by the U.S. State Department to Blackwater employees, delaying a criminal inquiry into the September 16 shootings.

To be sure, the involvement of mercenaries in traditional armed conflicts, as well as police actions, goes back several millennia, the most notable in recent history being the French Foreign Legion and the Gurkha Brigade in the British Army. The difference is that these foreign elements were assimilated into the regular armed forces of France and England, making them adhere to, and be held accountable for, breaches of conventional military policy and standards of conduct. But Blackwater, and the two other major American security personnel contractors in Iraq, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, are self-governing corporate entities. They are considered as independent contractors and accountable only for the accomplishment of their missions and not for collateral damage. Blackwater, in particular, had developed a reputation as a company that flaunted a quick-draw image. According to Newsweek:

    A more telling criticism of the company may come from the State Department officials whom Blackwater protects. Certainly, they are grateful to be guarded by former Navy SEALs and other Special Forces veterans, rather than green, young National Guardsmen. Blackwater likes to boast, accurately, that it has never lost a client. Still, some American diplomats—and not a few professional soldiers in the U.S. military—look askance at the heavy-handed swagger of the Blackwater guards, who often sport goatees and tattoos, wear wraparound shades, brandish their weapons and have been known to run anyone off the road who gets in their way. One State Department official, who spoke anonymously so as not to offend any guardians, “It was one step forward in a meeting with Iraqis and two steps back as cars were getting bumped off the road on the ride home.”

But as admitted, the U.S. can’t make a go of its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq without its hired gunslingers. No wonder Blackwater sees itself as above the law.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a former member of the U.S. Navy Seals, dropped out of Annapolis and was an intern at the White House during the term of President George H.W. Bush. Independently wealthy, Prince is a conservative, practicing Roman Catholic, who desires to go to Mass every day, and has been variously described as an “adventure-seeker”, a “neo-Crusader” advancing “ a Christian-supremacist agenda” and “righteous and well-armed”. In other words, a religious zealot, a Christian warlord for our age. Per Newsweek, he is perceived by many as:

    Xxx building a private army that is beyond the control of the American government and answerable only to him.

Prince was, not surprisingly, named as one of Rolling Stone’s Dickheads of 2007. His citation read:

    We used to have rent-a-cops. Now we have rent-a-soldiers. As CEO of Blackwater, the most notorious private-security contractor in Iraq, Prince has his own navy, air force and spy agency. This guy is building nothing short of a parallel national-security apparatus. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but he’s a super-Christy Jesus freak who looks on the Crusades the way rednecks pine for the Confederacy.

Part II

Like it or not, 21st century warfare, characterized by areas of “low-intensity conflict”, will be influenced by entities like Blackwater, which has given a corporate face to the previously shady world of mercenaries.

Inevitably, Blackwater found its way to the Philippines and has been quietly but very actively recruiting personnel from our underpaid and overworked (though generally resourceful and courageous) members of the armed forces. This caused a flap a few years back when its recruitment efforts were exposed by the media.

According to Sourcewatch, several Manila newspapers reported that Blackwater “was using the former US naval base in Subic to recruit Filipino mercenaries to fight in Iraq” and “even featured pictures of Filipino-looking men wearing combat fatigues during what appears to be guard duty in an alleged Middle East community.”

    “The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) denounced the US for hiring Filipino mercenaries to fight its wars in Iraq and other countries,” Manila’s Sun Star reported June 12, 2006. “New People’s Army (NPA) spokesman Gregorio ‘Ka Roger’ Rosal said hiring Filipino civilians to provide support services for the US’ war in Iraq and other countries is bad enough and should be discouraged, but ‘hiring Filipino soldiers of fortune to fight in US wars of aggression and terror against other countries is even worse and deserves nothing but condemnation.’

    “Rosal said the establishment of Blackwater’s recruitment center in the Philippines stemmed from the mounting casualties of US military personnel that have triggered severe criticism, massive protests and plunging ratings for US President George W. Bush.

    “He said the US has also turned to Third World countries to be able to cut costs as hired Filipino mercenaries are paid only US$60,000-US$80,000 a year, half of what it pays American mercenaries with equivalent qualifications and assignments,” the Sun Star reported.

The Reds are predictably incensed about Blackwater’s presence in the country, but note that even the NPA impliedly acknowledges the undeniable attraction of working for Blackwater. The annual compensation of the lowest paid Blackwater grunt (allegedly) at U.S. $60,000 is approximately a hundred times the annual compensation of a mid-level officer in the Philippine armed forces, with at least 10 years of field experience under his belt. It’s no wonder that the Philippines is particularly fertile recruiting ground for Blackwater and other private security contractors. Filipino soldiers have a reputation for being loyal, cool under fire and used to operating under difficult, even destitute, conditions. They make do with what they have and will literally take a bullet for you, for so long as they’re assured their families will be taken care of. Added to this is their facility with English and familiarity with the American military traditions and culture, as the modern Philippine armed forces are patterned after that of the U.S. The talent drain is specially acute in specialized units like the Marines, the Navy Special Warfare Action Group (SWAG) and Army Rangers, according to an AFP officer of my acquaintance.

Certain groups, with ties to Filipino-Americans who are Blackwater sub-contractors and/or recruiters, look at this as just another business opportunity for exporting trained manpower. We send out medical personnel, engineers, I.T. professionals and domestics to every conceivable corner of the globe. Why not soldiers ?

They reason that this is nothing new, and that our soldiers are routinely involved in U.N. police efforts as part of U.N. Peacekeeping Forces, which is basically soldiering for international interests. Resigned or retired soldiers still have marketable skills which they sometimes use for less than honorable ends, like bank robbery. The strongest argument is, of course, always financial, in relation to the family. Why deprive them of the opportunity to provide a better life for their families, just like any OFW ?

It might even be feasible to open a Blackwater regional office here, for recruitment as well as training purposes. We certainly have a readily available manpower pool. We have more than enough land, in varied physical environments, to match or even surpass the vast Blackwater complex in Moyock, North Carolina.

Such an arrangement will not only earn much-needed dollars for the country in these inflationary times, it might also solve the problem of criminality to some degree, as ex-soldiers or cops who might otherwise be robbing banks and killing people will be in Iraq or some other hot-spot providing a valuable service.

Take the case of Fiji, which has professionalized and institutionalized private soldiering. A report in the International Herald Tribune shows how this tiny country has cultivated a martial culture with no problem in fashioning a gross domestic product that includes mangoes and mercenaries.

    Since the 1970s, this impoverished and remote remnant of the British Empire has positioned itself as a discount-soldier surplus store. Its best customer has been the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. Today, on the post-Sept. 11 battlefield, Fiji is marketing for hire its 3,500 active soldiers, 15,000 reservists and more than 20,000 unemployed former troops.

    “Private armies became a viable commercial enterprise the moment America invaded Iraq,” said Sakiusa Raivoce, a retired Fijian colonel and director of Security Support, the biggest of the country’s six mercenary employment agencies. “The time is right, and our price is right.”

    “We made a conscious decision to create an army bigger than we need to generate foreign currency,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, 46, senior officer and private army sales liaison in the (military) junta led by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, a former UN peacekeeper.

    “Our economy has no choice but to build armies, and it’s a good business. There are few other foreign investments. If we didn’t do this, our people would be in the street creating havoc.”

    Fiji’s unemployment rate is about 8 percent.

    A 2007 report by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries recognized “the important contributions of remittances from Fijian migrant workers in the field of security to the economy of the country.”

    Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, a lobbying group for security companies that employ mercenaries, said, “Fiji is a vital part of the industry” - which he prefers to brand as “the peace and stability operations industry.”

The mercenary industry has thus proved to be a vital lifeline for a poor country like Fiji. Note that Fiji’s unemployment rate is much lower than the Philippines (variously estimated at 12 to 14 percent, and growing).

But the arguments against adopting a Fiji-style approach are many and valid. The most obvious is the instability brought about by having a military force primarily driven by financial, rather than patriotic, considerations. The army goes to the highest bidder. The prime example is again Fiji, which has undergone 4 coups since 1988 and is now ruled by a military junta. Another compelling point against a martial economy is that it may collapse if peace breaks out.

    Sitiveni Ratuva, a sociologist at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, is waiting for Fiji’s lock-and-load economy to backfire.

    “It’s unsustainable,” Ratuva said. “Their training is geared for engagement on the battlefield. Normal economies don’t facilitate jobs that require mercenaries. Otherwise you’d have to manufacture war after war to keep the economy alive.”

Another problem would be the talent drain on our already overstretched and corrupted military. Our internal security situation is far from ideal, with continuing threats from the Right and the long-standing Leftist insurgency, not to mention the Moslem rebel groups in Mindanao and the ever-present concern of political extremism and terrorism. The best and the brightest would be lured away by hefty paychecks and the opportunity for travel and adventure. Just the chance to work with the best-trained and to use the most advanced equipment in their profession of arms would be tantalizing. Only the incompetent and corrupt will remain.

Furthermore, lines of authority and accountability can blur in a war zone. Giving private contractors a pivotal role, without holding them responsible for excesses, will lead to more incidents like the killing of civilians in Bagdad. As pointed out by an editorial in the New York Times, there are numerous difficulties in prosecuting the perpetrators, including the lack of political will on the part of American authorities, the absence of clear laws and the immunity from Iraqi prosecution granted the contractors.

    The F.B.I. is reaching the same horrifying conclusion as the Iraqi authorities: that the deadly September shooting spree by Blackwater security guards in Baghdad was unjustified and violated the American government’s rules for the use of deadly force. The question is, what is the Bush administration going to do about it?

    David Johnston and John M. Broder reported on Wednesday that federal investigators found no evidence to support claims by Blackwater officials that Iraqi civilians had fired on the guards.
    This is hardly surprising, considering the “spray and pray” tactics favored by many of these contractors. But the incident has fed Iraqis’ fury at the American occupation and made it even harder for American officials to insist that Iraq’s leaders respect their own citizens and the rule of law.

    The mess provides yet another argument for the swift and orderly exit of American troops from Iraq and the even swifter withdrawal of all the private armies Washington employs there. Any contractors who committed crimes must also be quickly brought to justice.

    Contractors have been involved in some of the most shameful incidents in this war, including the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes against an Iraqi. That shameful record cannot be allowed to stand.

But the trend towards the privatization of military functions, in the wake of globalization, appears to be unstoppable. Even the U.N. admits as much. In an AP report on U.N. findings on mercenary activities:

    Private contractors like those implicated in the shootings of civilians in Iraq are part of a global trend of hiring recruits from one country to perform military jobs in another, in what a UN expert called a growing new form of mercenary activity.

    The independent human rights experts who wrote a UN report obtained by The Associated Press consider the slaying of 17 civilians in Baghdad by security guards working for Blackwater USA last month as underscoring the risk of using such contractors in a country where they have immunity, the chairman of the UN group said.

    The UN Security Council and General Assembly have opposed the use of mercenaries, but the hiring of foreign soldiers by one country for use in a third is specifically illegal only for the 30 countries that ratified a 1989 treaty against their use. Those 30 do not include either the United States or Iraq.

    “The trend toward outsourcing and privatizing various military functions by a number of member states in the past 10 years has resulted in the mushrooming of private military and security companies,” the panel’s 25-page report said.

    The “tremendous increase” in the number of such companies, including those working for the State Department and Defense Department, has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report said.

    Officials at the U.S. Mission to the UN offices in Geneva declined to comment on the report.

    José Luis Gómez del Prado, the Spanish expert who heads the five-member UN group, said the panel had been studying the use of contractors for two years.

    The report said that some companies had hired former military personnel and former police officers to serve as security guards, but some in fact became “private militarily armed soldiers.”

    Gómez del Prado said that he knew Blackwater had recruited soldiers and military veterans from Chile and that the security companies in general had hired recruits from all over the world, including Spain, Portugal and other Western countries, as well as Russia and South Africa.

    “I don’t know if they work for Blackwater, but all these private security companies, they are recruiting from all over the world - from the Philippines, from Fiji,” he said.

Thus, the debate continues.

    Is it right to give civilian soldiers a license to use armed force? Who do they answer to if they fall short, or go too far? Is there a risk of private armies turning rogue?

One thing is sure. In a world of increasing conflict, Blackwater, and its ilk, are here to stay.
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