17 February 2001, de Volkskrant (Netherlands)

Military operations (ex VAT)

By Marcia Lutyen

Developing countries pay private armies millions of dollars to train soldiers or to end a civil war. The private armies seem to do a better job at the latter than the UN. And a lot cheaper.

Michael Grunberg has a job that speaks to the imagination. Grunberg is a commercial advisor for a company that sells soldiers to government leaders. His main clients are located around the equator.

He works for Sandline International, a company that provides army instructors, military advisors and combat operations for those who pay. Sandline is a new type of army; tax paying commercial companies with flashy websites and products called “confidential matters”. Especially third world countries hire military companies, countries which are poor despite their natural resources like oil and diamonds. The gold and oil are often the main reason for the military operations.

Grunberg does not disclose the names of his clients; they rather keep their national problems to themselves. The military companies often work in conflict areas but also countries in a state of peace require the help of Sandline, military training continues even when there is no war. The soldiers are hired for each individual operation only and the armies that they have previously served in include the British, the American and the Dutch.

Cobus Claassens is such a soldier, hired for years by the South African military company called Executive Outcomes (EO, not operational at this moment). He came from the South African army and doubled his salary when he started working for EO. Claassens: "there is no glamour or adventure in this job, it consists of normal military operations, although we encounter serious resistance in our operations and backing is only marginal."

Private armies are generally working in a grey area (nine out of 10 claims Claassens): only the modern companies work with a certain amount of openness. From the modern companies only Sandline carries out actual combat operations besides military training

Private armies are not new, in the 70’s famous men like Bob Denard led mercenary armies in Africa, for whoever paid the most.

According to Grunberg the word mercenary is still connected to cigar chewing, loudmouthed, scarred men who kill for the killing itself. It has to be said that Grunberg seems to be the opposite. Well dressed, sophisticated and he chooses his words carefully, in order to be sure that he discloses not too much information.

If military companies want to lose the mercenary image they will need to be more open about their work. Former leader of Sandline, Tim Spicer, wrote a book about his business. On their websites the companies claim that they only work for the “good guys”. However, there are doubts about this, who can guarantee that the company isn’t just working for the highest bidder, even if this is a dictator? Furthermore how will the soldiers behave during combat?

Military companies who do not engage in combat situations but focus on training (the biggest being the American firm MPRI) are mostly left alone. A year ago EO ceased to exist leaving only Sandline in the combat business. Sandline is registered in the Bahamas, located in Guernsey and has an office in London. It was encouraged by Briton businessman Tony Buckingham as a European equivalent of EO. The business is watched by a lot of people, much to the annoyance of Grunberg.

So he emphasises that Sandline only does business with clients that are backed by the international community (“we try to regulate ourselves”). In general these are lawful governments; "a rebel movement that has undivided backing from the international community is a red herring" claims Grunberg. Only once Sandline tried to work for a liberation movement, the unofficial government of Kosovo, but this was forbidden by the British government.

David Shearer (researcher at the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS) is convinced that companies like Sandline only work for the good guys. In 1998 he published the most influential study in this area: Private armies and military intervention. Shearer: "the people behind Sandline are businessmen, not murderers. No country wants to hire a bunch of murderers."

Grunberg thinks that the attitude towards military companies changed drastically since 1995. David Shearer changed his opinion towards private armies when he saw EO work in Sierra Leone where the locals treated the soldiers as heroes. "They ended the massacres conducted by the rebel army."

EO’s operation in Sierra Leone between ’95 and ’97 is the main success story of the private armies. Because the rebel army was about to take Freetown the president (Strasser) decided to hire EO. EO first drove the rebels from the capital city after which they recaptured the area in which the diamond mines are located. Later they recaptured the titanium mines and forced the rebels to the negotiation table.

Three months later free elections were held during which EO was called upon once more to force the rebels to sign a peace deal. However, when EO left the country the fighting started again.

Claassens explains that that particular operation was so successful because the members of that private army came from top units in the South African army.

EO impressed regular armies as well as the press and researchers. It succeeded where others (including the UN) had failed. Also the cost of the operation was much lower, $ 1.2 million [per month] compared to the $ 60 million that the UN has spent. This is not surprising while the UN is not a military organisation, says Doug Brooks (South African Institute for International Affairs). Furthermore, he says, the UN is dependent on countries that voluntarily contribute soldiers, which all speak different languages, come from different cultural backgrounds and use different equipment.

Even more remarkable is that EO received compliments from humanitarian organisations. Normally they have the most critical opinion of private armies; the effectiveness of private armies is not hindered by Geneva conventions or human right issues. Although Alex Vines from Human Rights Watch claims that EO was guilty of war crimes in Angola and Sierra Leone, there was general approval of their actions because it enabled the human right organisations to access the victims of war more easily. Corine Dufke (a colleague of Vines) hesitates to give an opinion on EO; she only says that EO were the good guys in Sierra Leone.

Rich countries stay clear of civil wars (e.g. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia). "In the West there is no readiness to sacrifice soldiers for African countries", claims Dutch army general Cees Homan. After 18 American soldiers died in Somalia, the US did not take part in any UN mission. When they did go to war it was under the flag of NATO.

UN missions are therefore dependent on soldiers from India, Fiji and Pakistan. These soldiers can make 10 times as much money in the UN army compared to their wages in their own army. Brooks: "if these soldiers fight for money, where does their motivation differ from private armies?"

Especially in conflicts where the West decides not to intervene (massacres, drugged child soldiers, rebel wars) private armies are at an advantage claims Kevin O’Brien from King’s College, London. With first world equipment they fight third world equipment, and they are willing and able to use and respond to violence.

However O’Brien does not approve of private armies. His principal point of view is that war may never be commercialised. In an ideal world only the UN should be allowed to use violence when necessary says O’Brian. The only problem with this argument is that it is not very realistic, he adds.

Grunberg: "Koffi Annan said that the peace missions cannot be privatised yet. Mind you: "yet" means that it is going to happen. What we need is a conservative in the White House".

Now that Bush is in the White House Grunberg is happy. The more the US diverts its attention from problems outside of the US the more work for his sector.

Brooks thinks that the UN has to hire private soldiers if the West is not willing to provide soldiers. “An interesting thought”, says Homan. Although he prefers a UN army he points out that the West only wants "wars without tears". This is bad news for Africa; "If we do not want to give up Africa we should consider hiring private armies". He adds: "There are no legal obstructions to do this and the advantage is that it makes the private armies visible and thus controllable."

"Of course Sandline would be interested in conducting operations for the UN" says Grunberg, "this will relieve us from the suspicions surrounding our business." But is that worth their while financially? Grunberg laughs and says: "Of course: if you see how much the UN spend on peace missions. We are even prepared to negotiate a substantial decrease in cost". Also Grunberg sees no problem at all in the fact that regulators and their shareholders will monitor their actions.

However that will not remove all the objections against military companies. David Shearer: "the connections between mining companies, governments and private armies are not clear. A western company pays a third world government for mining rights, but without stability in the country these rights are worth nothing. The government then hires a private army to regain stability, and the company can start its mining".

Although there is no evidence for connections between private armies and mining companies, Grunberg’s name regularly pops up at different oil and mining companies. "Logical", claims Grunberg, "I advise many of these companies, but it doesn’t prove connections between the different companies".

But O’Brien from King’s College is worried about the commercial connections of the private armies; "A war is not fought to end a conflict but to help several private companies". This is confirmed by Claassens: "When Freetown was secured we were send to recapture the Kono-district so DiamondWorks could start their mining. The right military decision would have been to follow the rebels into the jungle. The commercial interest negatively influenced the military decisions".

EO expanded its commercial activities in the nineties. EO does not exist anymore, this idea of a network of affiliated companies acquiring a strong position in a weak state is, according to Grunberg, based on nothing but suspicion and rumour. He gets annoyed: "the claim that it is re-colonisation by big multinationals is bullshit".

However also David Shearer thinks that a military company can exert influence on a government of a weak state. Although he also states that the difference between a big multinational and a private army in a developing country is not very large (e.g. Shell and BP in Nigeria).

O’Brien: after the collapse of the Soviet Union many western companies rushed into this country. Also the majority of assignments were acquired by personal contacts. In a way this is re-colonisation. However, I do not think that a private army and multinationals will take over an African state".