Wednesday, 1 March 2000, USA Today (Magazine), Volume 128, Issue 2658

Copyright Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company

Combat for sale: The new, post-Cold War mercenaries

Private military companies are working hand in glove with various governments to fight their wars in a businesslike manner

David Isenberg

They're back! The new and improved mercenaries are now the good guys - at least to some. No doubt Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian political philosopher, must be turning over in his grave. After all, in his classic work of realpolitik, The Prince, he wrote: "Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline."

Mercenaries are widely perceived to be war profiteers exploiting violence for personal gain. Such unflattering references are why they have worked hard to reposition themselves. In the new grammar, mercenaries use innocuous business titles, such as private military companies (PMCs).

PMCs are unlike the mercenaries of a few decades ago, such as Frenchman Bob Denard and Irishman "Mad" Mike Hoare, who took advantage of the crises that followed decolonization in Africa. Nor are they like the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam veterans who participated in the 1980s Central American wars. Today's mercenaries increasingly are highly trained, organized, and, most important, hierarchically formed into incorporated, registered businesses whose services are offered to governments, large corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. Often, the personnel of PMCs are former military members with many years of active duty behind them.

Of course, traditional mercenaries still exist and fight. Looking at press clippings, one can find frequent references to them in such places as Kashmir, Afghanistan, and various African nations. In 1998, French mercenaries working in Congo Brazzaville went on strike for lack of pay. Employees of some PMCs have been reported to be working on both sides in the Congo war as well as for the West African multinational peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) in the fighting in Sierra Leone.

Modem mercenaries have assumed a new media visibility. The activities of the South African-based Executive Outcomes (EO), which helped the Angolan military bring Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to the bargaining table; U.S.-based MPRI, which has won contracts to train the Croatian and Bosnian militaries; and Sandline, which has been in the news due to its involvement in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, have been well-publicized, due in no small part to their web sites, professionally produced videos, and marketing literature.

Why are PMCs more visible in recent years? The end of the bipolar superpower standoff pushed an international order, which had been in an unnatural stasis for the past half-century, into an unsettled flux. Unlike in the Cold War era, there is a marked reluctance on the part of the West to intervene in what are seen to be peripheral conflicts not related to vital national interests. The casualties suffered by U.S. forces in Somalia in 1993 strengthened American reluctance to participate in peace enforcement missions.

Since the end of the Cold War, capitalism and privatization have been making major inroads worldwide. Corporations and businesses are undertaking new investments on a global scale, trying to break into new markets and obtain new resources, as well as to protect existing infrastructure in areas often troubled by violence.

Given that the military and security forces of a country are often, at best, inadequate to the challenges besetting them, a government's natural desire to stay in power, and the lack of support from outside powers, it comes as no surprise that national and corporate leaders are choosing help from whatever quarter is available. In that sense, regimes turn to PMCs because they cannot trust their own forces or those forces are in disarray. That help is increasingly available from PMCs is not surprising. After all, for several years, in country after country, the mantra has been to let the private sector do it. Downsizing and outsourcing have been all the rage, affecting even military forces. When it comes to weak or unstable governments, nature abhors a vacuum.

The growth of security companies internationally is in many respects an extension of their increasing role in providing security in domestic settings. There is still enough conflict in the world for people to want PMC services. In 1997, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Africa experienced its highest number of bloody conflicts in several years. There were eight, four of them new, making it the continent's most violent year since 1991, when there were 10. All of these are internal conflicts, which are usually the most intractable and the ones that outside powers are most reluctant to become involved in. They are also the least likely to be solved through negotiation. Thus, given the need to improve military capabilities in order to settle things decisively on the battlefield and the prospect of no help from outside states, such wars represent market opportunities to PMCs.

Not all PMCs are the same. Some very large U.S. firms - such as Vinnell Corp., which for many years has been training the Saudi Arabian National Guard; BDM International Inc.; Brown & Root; and Pacific Architects and Engineering - have long provided logistical support to foreign militaries. These companies offer some military-training capabilities most often associated with PMCs. However, they are primarily concerned with furnishing security services and do not provide direct military assistance that has a strategic impact.

It is the prospect of private firms conducting direct combat, combat support, or training people in combat - as opposed to maintenance - skills which seizes public attention. In a 1998 International Institute of Strategic Studies paper, David Shearer wrote: "Military companies provide active military assistance, in some cases involving combat, which has a strategic impact on the political and security environments of the countries in which they operate." In other words, they are not merely passive trainers. They may fight alongside a client's military forces, but usually with the limitation that they are acting within the chain of command of the client's military hierarchy.

EO was virtually in a class by itself, as it primarily was a pool of former South African National Defense Force or police personnel - albeit one without a weapons stockpile or even a standing force. It was also the one PMC that conducted direct combat operations on a sustained basis. Most PMCs, unlike EO, function in a noncombat advisory capacity. EO terminated its operations on Dec. 31, 1998, for undisclosed reasons. However, that doesn't mean that EO personnel won't stay active in the field. In January, 1999, a news report stated that a group of South African mercenaries, a number of whom were formerly associated with EO, were given approval by South African intelligence officials to act as consultants to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government.

Another large, but less publicly well-known, firm is the United Kingdom-based Defense Systems Limited, which has developed into one of the world's largest suppliers of specialist security services. DSL's core business is devising and implementing solutions to complex security problems in high-risk areas that include Algeria, Angola, and Colombia. Its client list includes De Beers, Texaco, Chevron Schlumberger, British Gas, British Petroleum, Bechtel, BHP Mineral, and American Airlines. At least seven United Nations organizations utilize DSL in security roles.

Ghurka Security Guards Ltd., a privately-owned British firm, primarily employs former British Army Ghurka officers and soldiers, who are closest in model to the French Foreign Legion. Among other services, they offer security training, route clearance, explosive ordnance disposal, and manned guarding services in hostile areas to safeguard personnel, installations, and equipment.

MPRI may be the prototype of the PMC of the future. MPRI trades very heavily on the cachet of its founders and staff, most of whom are former high-ranking senior military officers in the U.S. military. Its immodest logo claims it is "the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world." MPRI has very close ties to the U.S. government and says it only operates in areas approved by the State Department. In its overseas ventures, MPRI deliberately has worked as an extension of U.S. foreign policy. Given the challenges of civil conflict in the Balkans, it is understandable that Washington supports MPRI's efforts there. In that regard, it should be emphasized that no PMC thus far has worked against the interest of its home state, although a group like EO, unlike MPRI, operated largely independent of South African government regulation. Nevertheless, EO shares with MPRI the belief that stability is best ensured by enhancing a state's regular military forces' combat capability.

PMCs and Sierra Leone

The 1998 scandal in the United Kingdom over the activities of Sandline International in the West African country of Sierra Leone served to focus world attention on PMCs' activities. Although it was compared to the Reagan Administration's Iranian arms sales scandal, the Sandline case is quite different when viewed in context. In March, 1995, then-Pres. Valentine Strasser, a former army officer who had taken power in a coup in May, 1992, requested assistance from EO to fight a rebellion being carried out by a vicious group called the Revolutionary United Front.

At the time, the RUF controlled and was savaging resources central to the country's economic base: diamonds, rutile, and bauxite. EO started by initiating training programs for the Army. EO's first operation involved defending the capital Freetown, in collaboration with Nigerian and Ghanaian troops, at a time when it was felt that it would fall to the RUE A bloody fight on the outskirts of Freetown in May, 1995, led to a retreat by the RUF. EO expanded its operations into the rural areas, retaking diamond-mining areas by the end of 1995, and provided security, enabling internal refugees to return home. It also started to cooperate with one of the rural militias (the Kamajors) that had organized to provide a local defense force in the absence of assistance from a corrupt and incompetent government army.

In January, 1996. EO defeated the RUF in a series of set-piece encounters. Elections were held the following month, and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UN diplomat, was elected president. Kabbah agreed to keep on the foreign PMCs such as EO and local affiliates such as Lifeguard, an EO spinoff. Under Kabbah, EO's training program for the Kamajors intensified, and the militia became an increasingly important force, both politically and militarily.

In cooperation with the Nigerian forces, EO continued to fight the RUF, badly defeating them in a number of battles. (By August, the RUF proposed peace negotiations.) After Kabbah took office in April, EO's contract was renegotiated downward to $1,225,000 a month. Because the International Monetary Fund was pressuring the government to cut spending, Kabbah proposed reducing EO's fees to $700,000 a month without consulting EO, even though the IMF thought EO's charges were reasonable. EO subsequently explained both to the Kabbah government and the IMF that it could not make such cuts, but did agree to lower its fees to $900,000 and add the shortfall to already substantial arrears, an arrangement that continued until EO left in January, 1997. The government owed EO $19,500,000.

EO's arrival in Sierra Leone had preceded the rapid expansion of the Isle of Man-registered Branch Energy's activities in Sierra Leone's mining sector. Branch Energy (in which Sierra Leone had a 30% stake in the Koidu concession), said it had invested $12,000,000 in exploratory mining between 1994 and 1996-a period when almost all the other mining companies had pulled out. Branch Energy was taken over in August, 1996, by Canada's Carson Gold, which then changed Branch Energy's name to DiamondWorks. Kabbah's government and the RUF signed a peace agreement in November, 1996. An important provision was that EO would leave Sierra Leone by January, 1997. The Kabbah government proceeded to antagonize the Army by drafting a plan for its substantial downsizing. The Army also was angered by Kabbah's increasing reliance on the Kamajor militias for security. In May, Maj. Paul Koroma led a successful coup and invited the rebel RUF to join his junta.

Kabbah opened discussions with India-- born Thai banker Rakesh Saxena, living in Canada and wanted by Thailand over alleged bank fraud, who offered to provide up to $10,000,000 for a counter-coup in return for Sierra Leonean diamond, bauxite, and gold exploration concessions. Saxena contacted Col. Timothy Spicer, a retired British army officer and the head of Sandline International, and commissioned an intelligence assessment of the situation.

In the spring of 1998, Koromah's junta was defeated by the West African multinational peacekeeping force, mostly led and manned by Nigerians. In May it was revealed that Sandline was reported to have exported 30 tons of small arms obtained from Bulgaria and military expertise in breach of a UN arms embargo, the only practical effect of which was to help Koroma to stay in power. Supposedly, this was a violation of the British Labour Government's promise to pursue an "ethical" foreign policy. In its defense, Sandline said it had been given the go-ahead for the exports by the Foreign Office. It appears they told the truth, as the Customs and Excise Office said it could not find enough evidence to prosecute Sandline. A report released by a Parliamentary committee which criticized the government's handling of the affair does not change that point.

Largely undiscussed is the fact that the operation in question led to the restoration to power of a democratically elected president, recognized by Britain and the UN. As several newspapers noted, a whiff of hypocrisy hangs about this affair. When Kabbah returned to Sierra Leone, Whitehall welcomed the event. Less was said about the methods that drove Koroma out of Freetown. The reason was that the successful military operation was led by Nigerian troops, and the decision by Nigeria's disreputable military regime to appoint itself the champion of constitutional order in Sierra Leone has been a source of some embarrassment ever since its forces first entered the country in the guise of peacekeepers. More importantly, in light of the recent renewed, vicious fighting between the Nigerian peacekeepers and those of the RUF and Koroma loyalists, and atrocities by the RUF against civilians, many have commented that the only bad thing about EO and Sandline operations in Sierra Leone was that they didn't stay. In 1998, the United Nations issued a report critical of Executive Outcomes at the same time that it employed Lifeguard Security, a company often linked to EO. Ironically, given all the controversy, Sandline did not make much money from its activities in Sierra Leone. According to news reports, its contract was canceled before the weapons actually arrived.

This was not Sandline's first encounter with controversy. In 1997, the government of Papua New Guinea hired Sandline to assist the PNG military in putting down a longstanding armed independence movement in Bougainville. Political disputes between then-Prime Minister Julius Chan and Brig.-Gen. Jerry Singirok, the head of the PNG Defense Forces, who opposed Sandline's hiring, but only after the contract was signed, led to harsh criticisms against the deal. When the terms of the contract were leaked to the public, riots erupted to protest alleged corrupt dealings between Chan and Sandline. Chan subsequently stepped aside while a caretaker prime minister was appointed. Later judicial inquiries ruled that the contract was legitimate, Sandline appropriately complied with its terms, and there was no evidence of corruption. In 1997, it was revealed that Bill Skate, Chan's successor as prime minister, had offered Sandline $9,000,000 to provide evidence that Chan received corrupt payments from them. Sandline refused as it had no evidence.


Although there have been various attempts in international law to ban mercenaries, none have been effective. The 1972 Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries is not in force. Even if it were, its provisions do not preclude the utilization of mercenaries per se, but, rather, their use to overthrow or undermine governments or liberation movements. Its main provisions were incorporated into the Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The Protocol applies to interstate conflicts, though, and PMCs are almost always involved in intrastate conflicts. In 1989, the UN drafted an International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, but this actually serves as an example of the world's comfort level with mercenaries. The Convention requires ratification by 22 countries to enter into force; thus far, just 12 have signed. Moreover, the signatories include Angola and Zaire, which have openly hired mercenaries, thus showing the Convention will not end reliance on mercenaries or PMCs.

The ambiguity regarding the use of mercenaries also works to their disadvantage. If, for instance, they were captured in an international conflict, they would not be entitled to treatment as prisoners of war or legitimate combatants. In other words, they don't get the protection of international humanitarian law. Yet, they are required to follow the rules and customs of war, at least on land, as set out in the Hague Convention.

As Shearer noted, given the criteria used in the above conventions, it is legally impossible to classify PMCs as mercenaries. For example, since many PMC personnel are employed on a long-term basis, they were not recruited for a particular conflict and thus cannot be considered mercenaries. The requirement that mercenaries take a direct part in hostilities would exclude those, like U.S.-based Military Professionals Resources Inc., acting as foreign military advisers and technicians. Even Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, the UN-appointed expert on the subject, has acknowledged that defining mercenaries is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Given the lack of relevant international law, greater emphasis naturally falls on national legislation, but these domestic laws typically fall short. U.S. law, under the Neutrality Act, merely prohibits the recruitment of mercenaries within the U.S.; being a mercenary is not in itself a criminal activity. Even the restriction against recruiting is rarely enforced. One need only recall the situation in the 1980s, when the anti-Sandinista contras were recruited and trained in the U.S., for confirmation.

In December, 1997, the State Department amended the International Traffic in Arms Regulations providing that persons engaged in the business of brokering arms shall register after paying a fee. The effect is that firms, such as MPRI, receive official approval to transfer arms overseas. Of course, MPRI does not do such things without first fully clearing it with the appropriate approval authorities, but the effect may make it easier for smaller PMCs to do so in the future. Although the record thus far indicates that PMCs have served a beneficial role, many people are uneasy with what they see as the potential or actual lack of accountability on their parts. Observers wonder who their actual boss is - their own government, the employing government, or a private business. Some are concerned that they could operate covertly on behalf of governments who do not wish to be publicly identified. Others worry that PMCs and the associated firms they establish on behalf of a client - say in an oil or diamond region - might give their client a strong, perhaps unfairly dominant, foothold in that state's economy. The confusion over links between PMCs such as Sandline and commercial firms such as Heritage Oil & Gas and Branch Energy, now DiamondWorks, has fueled those fears, although it has not been shown that there is anything illegal about such links, if they exist. While these are valid concerns, they may be overstated. After all, the public sector has not shown itself to be a paragon of openness in disclosing all its military operations. Where, after all, was the accountability regarding the Eisenhower/Kennedy Administrations' Bay of Pigs or the Reagan Administration's covert operations in Nicaragua? There are no easy answers to these questions. Attempts to ban PMCs are futile and undesirable. When a country's vital interests are threatened, the need for help outweighs uncertain moral arguments against it. That likely explains why Western governments have taken little concrete action to prohibit PMCs. As Sandline director Tim Spicer noted, "Objectively, there is nothing wrong with providing military services to people who don't have them in exactly the same way as you get bankers, doctors, and construction workers in Third World countries. Of course, we are a commercial organization. We're not a sort of moral-crusading white legion that goes around the world knocking off the bad guys. But our commercial aspirations are tempered with trying to do it right for the right people and not simply because somebody comes along with a fat check."

The most active efforts in controlling PMCs are occurring on a national basis. In 1997, the South African government introduced the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Bill. Under its provisions, a group like EO would have been compelled to seek government authorization for each contract. However, as Shearer pointed out, by requiring the government to approve EO contracts, the bill also makes Pretoria partly responsible for the company's activities; by approving an operation, the government is effectively sanctioning it. In that sense, a South African PMC would receive the same sort of sanction as MPRI does from the U.S. government, a point that was explicitly made by EO in its presentation to the South African Parliament, which approved the bill. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Sandline contretemps, UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has ordered officials to investigate ways of regulating PMCs. National legislation, however, is not a long-term solution. Most PMCs have fairly small infrastructures. Although they hire people for specific operations, thus meeting one of the criteria to be classified as mercenaries, they rarely take part in direct combat and are often considered part of a client state's military forces, making them exempt from prosecution. In any event, if national laws become too difficult for them to live with, they could easily move to another location. Moreover, as Herbert M. Howe of Georgetown University, a longtime observer of EO, has indicated, any attempt to eliminate PMCs would just drive them and their clients away from public oversight.

What most seems to bother many observers, especially those on the left, is that, nowadays, PMCs are respectable. They cannot bring themselves to believe that PMCs operate with discipline, observe the laws and customs of the host nation, and adhere to the principles of the Geneva Convention and the international law of armed conflict, just. like regular armed forces. From the PMCs' viewpoint, the failure to comply with these laws results in prosecution and deters clients, thus possibly bringing about the end of their business.

Yet, while PMCs generally have been operating ethically and responsibly thus far, the possibility can't be ignored that one or more of them might act unacceptably. Just one rogue PMC would likely make things difficult for the others, given the skepticism with which they are regarded.

Regulation, not prohibition

What is really required is a general set of rules setting forth the conditions PMCs must operate under. In short, regulation, not prohibition, is needed. At a minimum, such regulation must be based on greater transparency via a declaration of their activities. Some of this is already provided by media scrutiny of PMCs, at least the larger ones, in the countries where they are headquartered and operate.

In terms of regulation, the best approach discussed thus far was laid out in a point paper sent to the United Nations in 1998 by Michael Grunberg, the founder and owner of Plaza 107, a British multinational holding company, who has worked closely with both EO and Sandline. He calls for a general set of rules, governed by an international body such as the UN or the International Court in The Hague, covering the conditions under which PMCs can operate. They would subject themselves to an audit process whereby the registration body conducts an evaluation of the company's compliance with a predetermined set of internationally defined and accepted operating practices, such as technical competence, adherence to the law of armed conflict, and respect for human rights.

Once registered, PMCs would be kept on a list of approved companies maintained by the regulating authority. It would have the right to remove, suspend, or fine a particular PMC if there was evidence to prove that the company had breached its operating obligations and governing code. Prior to a PMC accepting an operational assignment, it would have to apply to the regulating authority for permission, setting out basic project details, a justification for its involvement, and a statement of parameters within which it would work. If permission is granted, a certificate would be issued by the regulating entity. In this sense, the process is similar to that of an arms contractor seeking an end-user certificate prior to selling its weapons abroad.

Finally, a PMC would deploy to the field with an observer team. This force would monitor the PMC to ensure it was not unnecessarily prolonging participation for financial gain, using indiscriminate military methods in violation of humanitarian law, or using its presence to exploit natural resources.

Of course, such an approach leaves many questions unanswered. Who sponsors the observer teams? How do they factor into operational security? If abuses are discovered, what recourse would the teams have? Who would be penalized? What are the consequences of the misconduct? Would the UN Security Council be responsible or some other international tribune - say the International Criminal Court?

Still, it is a start and at least deserves to be examined and discussed.

Like the international order itself, the role of PMCs is still in flux. Some observers believe that their future lies more with those that provide strict combat training, as opposed to actual combat capabilities. James Woods, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs from 1986 to 1994, believes that EO is not a good model. He thinks it is a wasting asset because it lacks steady contracts and thus professionalism and training go down. He believes the market is growing for groups like MPRI which provide tactical reconnaissance and convoy and area security. The latter functions are exactly the sorts of tasks performed by humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), making them likely clients of PMCs. In his view, the real growth in the future will be with groups like BDM, Vinnell, and DynCorp that provided logistics support to the U.S. military when it assisted refugees in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

It is valid to point out that PMCs are not the ultimate solution to strife and conflict in beleaguered states. If PMCs are not integrated into long-term reconstruction and development efforts, whatever stability they bring to a conflict zone will be short-lived. As Howe pointed out, it is not improbable that, in the future, outside companies might agree to finance a PMC's activities in a client country, when the government can't pay, in exchange for future concessions. Some see this as a new model to replace those of the Cold War era-rulers of weak states using a foreign partnership to compensate for the lack of a great-power patron. Some worry that the PMCs, encouraged by foreign corporations, may become a force unto themselves.

For example, a 1997 U.S. Army War College study noted: "Similarly, in a system where corporations or cartels have their own power that transcends the strictly economic, the United States will have to decide what sort of relationship to have with transnational corporations or multinational cartels. Should, for instance, the United States consider signing treaties, perhaps even nonaggression pacts with powerful corporations? And, if corporations do appear to pose an actual challenge to the power of the state, should the U.S. Government pursue a strategy designed specifically to prevent the accumulation of non-economic power by corporations? And, what should U.S. policy be toward transnational security corporations (a.k.a. mercenaries) such as the highly successful Executive Outcomes composed of former South African soldiers? Clearly, if power continues to accrue to transnational corporations, the United States will have to rethink some of the basic tenets of its approach to security and world politics." In their defense, PMCs argue that, once they restore stability, private companies offer the technology and finance that often are desperately needed.

Furthermore, PMCs are not necessarily suited for the various types of UN peace operations. Firms like EO or Sandline, which focused on direct combat operations, may be unsuited for classic peacekeeping operations. These are limitations that PMCs themselves acknowledge. As numerous peacekeeping operations involve forces far larger than those of many PMCs combined, it is obvious that PMCs are not suddenly going to replace the Stabilization Force in Bosnia. It is possible that, in the future, the market in Africa for PMCs may disappear. Perhaps, over the long term, an effort like the Clinton Administration's African Crisis Response Force will obviate the need for them. Given the disbanding of EO, it may be that the shelf life of PMCs is limited. Indeed, a researcher for Human Rights Watch said as much at a Privatization of Security in Africa Conference held in Johannesburg in December, 1998. Still, given what is happening today in places like Angola, Sierra Leone, and the Congo, it seems unlikely.

The role of PMCs in the international order should be legitimized. If a state cannot provide security and protection for its citizens -the essential rationale for existence for a government in the first place-it is immoral and the height of hypocrisy to tell another state it cannot take steps to defend itself because someone has inaccurate and outmoded ideas about private military forces.

In an era when there is a global erosion of national sovereignty and most of the world is shifting functions from the public to the private sector, it comes as no surprise that the ultimate state function-fighting of wars - is being outsourced. The trend of private-sector groups assisting governments in such previously government-monopolized functions as diplomacy and arms control is increasingly prominent. For instance, the worldwide treaty banning antipersonnel landmines was signed primarily due to the efforts of an international coalition of NGOs working with a small group of states.

Given that conflict invariably will continue and states will choose not to undertake humanitarian interventions, PMCs have a valid role to play in the future. For generations, the world has seen the private sector make money off war. The time has come to let it make a profit out of peace.

David Isenberg is an analyst at DynMeridian, a scientific, engineering, and management services firm headquartered in Alexandria, Va., that provides national security support to the U.S. government and industry.