Army for Hire

Two new books on the global market for armed force.

A piece of popular wisdom passed around by contractors working in Iraq says, “You know you’ve been in Baghdad too long when hearing Afrikaans at the pool is normal.”

That observation speaks to the outsize presence of South Africans in Iraq’s wartime contracting boom. Security costs have soaked up a massive chunk of Iraq reconstruction funds, and former South African soldiers and police, often veterans of the country’s apartheid-era border wars, have found their skills in high demand.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 South African expatriates are in Iraq, a sizeable number of whom work as armed guards. Several South African-based or -dominated security companies such as Reed, Safenet, and Omega Risk Solutions are registered with the Iraqi ministry of the interior.

But that bubble may soon burst. The South African parliament is pressing ahead with new legislation, the Prohibition of Mercenary Activity Bill, which would tighten oversight of South African citizens and residents who work in war zones.

The repercussions are already being felt. Erinys, a U.K.-based security firm that does work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pre-emptively dropped over 100 South Africans from its payroll; other companies are waiting see how sweeping the final law may be. (Aid groups are also concerned that the bill might restrict South Africans from performing humanitarian work in other countries.)

Iraq is only one reason for the new law. The official summary of the anti-mercenary bill also states another rationale: the involvement of a number of South African citizens in an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. For most U.S. newspaper readers, the Equatorial Guinea “coup plot” may spark only the faintest glimmer of recognition, but it caused a media furor in the United Kingdom, in large part because it involved Margaret Thatcher’s son.

The story in brief: In March 2004, Zimbabwean authorities detained a planeload of men from South Africa. The men claimed they were on their way to guard a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the government of Equatorial Guinea soon after announced that they were involved in a coup attempt against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo; several more men supposedly connected to the plot were arrested in Equatorial Guinea.

It all came down to control of Equatorial Guinea’s oil. In his well-researched new book, The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination To Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, Economist correspondent Adam Roberts describes how the purported plotters of “assisted regime change” in Equatorial Guinea stood to win control of one of the richest patches of oil and gas in Africa. 

Simon Mann, the alleged leader of the coup attempt, is still cooling his heels in a Harare prison. Roberts traces Mann’s ties to Executive Outcomes, a corporate army based in South Africa that won a reputation in the mid-1990s for security work in war-torn (and resource-rich) places like Angola and Sierra Leone. Mann, as Roberts describes him, “was as likely to wear a crumpled business suit and rimless spectacles as camouflage or chest webbing. He was an early example of a new sort of mercenary, the type as familiar with company law, bank transfers and investor agreements as with the workings of a Browning pistol.”

Educated at Eton and Sandhurst and heir to a brewing fortune, Mann seemed perfectly cast for the role of white mischief in Africa. (After his detention in Zimbabwe, he appealed to his backers to come through with a “splodge of wonga,” English schoolboy slang for a bundle of cash.) His story was also one of colossal arrogance. In Roberts’ account, Mann led plotters to believe that they could combine an arms buy in Zimbabwe, a newly acquired Boeing 727, and an exiled politician to depose Equatorial Guinea’s president—and make a splodge of wonga in the process.  

The Wonga Coup makes for a sorry epilogue to the story of Executive Outcomes, once the model of the successful mercenary firm. One only wishes that Roberts was able to delve more fully into the consequences for the foot-soldiers recruited for the job, mostly black veterans of South Africa’s fearsome 32 Battalion.

Post-colonial soldiers of fortune are now making way for a new kind of corporate warrior. In his book, Licensed To Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, writer and adventurer Robert Young Pelton offers a fascinating and fast-paced look at the post- 9/11 world of private military contractors.

Licensed To Kill takes Pelton from the Afghan-Pakistan border, where private companies are part of a shadow war against al-Qaida, to a Dallas trade show, where a new breed of contractors—employees of companies like DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and Blackwater—swap war stories and look for their next jobs. But the most pulse-quickening passages in Licensed To Kill describe the work of security contractors in Iraq. Pelton spent a month on the road with Blackwater’s Mamba team, ferrying passengers on the Baghdad airport road during a time of constant insurgent attack. What emerges is a unique glimpse into the culture and management of a secretive firm. 

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Blackwater was an obscure target-manufacturing company that ran a shooting range on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp; founder Erik Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL, ran the company more out of passion than for profit. Within a few years, Prince has not only turned the company into a major player in the private-security world but has also created an effective brand. Today, in addition to its work in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater runs training operations in Azerbaijan, is planning a jungle-training facility in the Philippines, and operates its own fleet of aircraft. 

Licensed To Kill is a glimpse of the industry’s future. Blackwater has already advertised its ability to raise a brigade-sized force, ready to deploy anywhere on a moment’s notice. In theory, such a force could be used to protect relief work in Darfur—but it would also cross a line from defensive security into overt combat operations.

That’s an important distinction. In Iraq, the strictly defensive role of private security companies protects their status as noncombatants (in U.S. Central Command’s definition). Employing a private firm to take out the Janjaweed may present a tempting option, but it raises a host of questions about legality and accountability. Under whose mandate would those private soldiers operate? Would they enjoy the same kind of blanket immunity from local law that U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer gave contractors in Iraq when he issued Order 17?

One of the most common criticisms leveled at the private security industry is a lack of transparency. Blackwater, in fact, has made a concerted public relations effort of late, opening its gates to selected members of the press; other companies have invited reporters to ride along with them. More troubling is the tendency of the government—in industry parlance, the “client”—to use private companies to shield policies from public scrutiny and create additional layers of secrecy.

When contractors are killed in Iraq, the Department of Defense issues no casualty announcement; likewise, when contractors take lives, the incidents are rarely publicized. A federal judge recently rejected a Freedom of Information Act request by the Los Angeles Times seeking to identify the names of private security firms involved in serious shooting incidents in Iraq, on the grounds that the disclosure might tip off insurgents.  The Army had released a number of such reports to the newspaper but blacked out the names of companies involved.

And then there was the precedent of Order 17. As Pelton observes, “Order 17 established a virtually nonexistent standard of accountability for security contractors in Iraq that has persisted, though the specific legal grounds may have since shifted.”

It’s important to add here that Pelton writes admiringly of contractors who perform their jobs with professionalism and restraint. But he worries that “if a particularly negligent or intentional attack on civilians was publicly exposed, it is unclear what legal avenues would be used to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

On Aug. 16, a federal judge overturned a jury verdict against Custer Battles, a security company accused of defrauding the government on Iraq reconstruction work. While the judge found there was sufficient evidence that the company submitted inflated invoices to the Coalition Provisional Authority, he also concluded the CPA was not a U.S. government entity. As a consequence of this ruling—and myriad other decisions made by U.S. officials—we may never know the full scope of the private sector’s involvement in the war on terror.