As American and Coalition soldiers pull out of Iraq, tens of thousands of private military firm (PMF) contractors stationed there will seek employment elsewhere. While many are likely to return to civilian jobs in the United States, a large portion of this sector is unlikely to return home and become accountants and florists. Those looking to stay within their line of work may very well be eyeing various opportunities in Africa for their next tour of duty. The consequences of this migration will produce numerous, potentially negative, consequences.
Currently 190,000 private military contractors serve in and around Iraq, outnumbering the 140,000 American troops fighting there. These PMF employees perform duties ranging from laundry services and food preparation to interrogations and armed security. In short, PMFs do everything the American military can do for itself. These same skills and tasks are not exactly left wanting in various parts of the African continent. Be it in United Nations peacekeeping missions, non-governmental organization (NGO) humanitarian efforts, business protection services, personal security enterprises, anti-terrorism activities, and even perhaps in inter- and intrastate conflict, Africa is tantalizing fruit to PMFs expanding from or moving out of Iraq.
Perhaps it is fitting private military firms return in force to the place that reinvigorated “mercenarism.” The now defunct military enterprise that triggered the modern private military phenomenon, Executive Outcomes, was headquartered in South Africa. In the 1990s, this enterprising PMF successfully battled UNITA insurgents on behalf of the Angolan government, before wiping out the rebel Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. The company later disbanded, only to have its employees reorganize elsewhere on the continent and around the world under various guises.
After the successful, lucrative operations of Executive Outcomes, other PMFs understandably sought a piece of the action. Indeed, few African countries have not had direct experience with PMFs in one way or another. Scattered across the continent, UN Peacekeeping missions, for instance, are a goldmine for PMFs. In 2004, Dyncorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE) (now a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin), for example, were awarded U.S. government contracts to provide African Union troops serving in Sudan housing, transport and communications support. (In 2006, infamous PMF Blackwater went a step further and offered civilian protection services in Darfur). The U.S. has also contracted PMF Brown and Root for support services in peacekeeping interventions in Somalia and Rwanda. Alongside PAE, International Charter Incorporated (ICI) of Oregon served ECOMOG (West Africa), UNMIL (Liberia) and UNAMSIL (Sierra Leone). Peacekeeping operations abound in Africa, and so do the opportunities for private military firms to capitalize on contracts for a variety of associated needs.
Elsewhere in Africa, American PMF Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) was asked by the government of Equatorial Guinea to evaluate its armed forces’ ability to protect offshore oil infrastructure. In 2003, UK PMF Northbridge Services Group even offered to apprehend indicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor from his exile in Nigeria in order to claim a $2 million reward offered by the Bush Administration (Taylor is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes). Indeed, PMFs have or continue to operate in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, and the quasi-state Puntland (it’s a long list). The possibilities for PMF intervention in Africa seem infinite.
This is not just an “outside-in” phenomenon. While a majority of the world’s PMFs are based in the U.S. and UK, many companies call South Africa and Zimbabwe home. Large-scale demobilizations of thousands of troops from conflict zones in Burundi, the DRC, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, West Africa, and post-Apartheid South Africa, coupled with high unemployment rates, provide prime recruiting opportunities for African and Western PMFs looking to bolster their ranks and operations on the continent, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These realities spell trouble for an industry that shows no sign of slowing. For one, the lack of accountability over these firms and their employees is troubling. Currently there are no international treaties and few state laws strictly governing the behavior of PMFs in conflict zones. The recent, difficult indictment of Blackwater Worldwide employees for the so-called Nisour Square Massacre in which 17 Iraqi civilians died during a shootout underscores the murkiness in which PMFs operate. The indictment of five Americans (in the U.S.) for the incident required much wrangling—imagine how difficult, if at all possible, it will be to hold “third party nationals” accountable for similar crimes.
Moreover, because of the caliber of much of the personnel, it is only a matter of time before the Nisour Square Massacre is repeated in places like Mogadishu or Freetown; PMFs, after all, are more likely to recruit effective, practiced killers over morally constrained bookworms. In the past, PMF employees have been implicated in a number of unsightly incidents, from slapping Afghan President Karzai’s transport minister in the face, to abuses at Abu Ghraib prison to sex trafficking in Bosnia.
The reality is that the growth of the private military industry is far outpacing international and state regulatory regimes. The only substantial law on the books, a Protocol to the 1977 Geneva Conventions, defines a “mercenary”—a label most PMFs reject—as foreign nationals motivated by private gain hired to fight in armed conflict, who “is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict.” Certainly Africans hired by Americans to fight in the streets of Baghdad will fall under this category. But a law is only as good as its enforcement. With PMFs providing vital services to American and Iraqi troops, there is little incentive for any government to strictly enforce mercenary laws. Where governments are weaker (e.g. Somalia, DRC), international treaties will hold less sway.
The problems do not end with international jurisdiction. When PMFs seek to guard company secrets in the face of competition, transparency becomes a serious issue. This secrecy, as far as American PMFs are concerned, also circumvents U.S. Congressional oversight. The rules-of-engagement are equally fuzzy, as are problems of authority: a PMF employee, because he works for a company and not a military, can easily walk away if the fighting becomes too intense, easily befuddling military personnel or the citizenry in which they are charged to protect or serve. Measures of transparency are being introduced at the federal level in the U.S. The General Accounting Office, for example, since October 2008 must submit annual reports to Congress on PMFs contracted in Iraq and Afghanistan, but these are preliminary steps in opening the wider contracting role to public scrutiny.
More issues can be raised here, but the point is made: the hiring and use of PMFs from and in Africa poses serious policy (and moral) challenges to states, companies, organizations, employees and civilians involved in this murky enterprise. Serious laws governing the private military industry, as well as accompanying oversight and accountability mechanisms—at state and international levels—are needed before PMF activity in places like Africa get out of hand.
Shaun Randol is an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute and
independent research consultant. He regularly contributes to the World
Policy Journal blog, is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, and
regularly publishes in academic journals.
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