The rise of the private-sector military

In era of shrinking armed forces, America turns to private firms to carry out foreign military aid.

Faced with more overseas commitments and fewer resources, the US is increasingly relying on private military companies to do some of its most difficult international jobs.

These aren't the mercenaries who parachute into hot spots, guns blazing, for cold cash. But they're controversial nonetheless.

Over the past 10 years, private military companies, or PMCs, have quietly taken a central role in the exporting of security, strategy, and training for foreign militaries.

In the process, PMCs are raising questions about the privatization of foreign policy, and whether a profit-seeking company can be accountable with limited government oversight. Oftentimes the companies are training armies in turbulent areas. And, once granted an export license, they are minimally supervised.

"The worry tends to have less to do with the people involved than it has to do with the policy in place," says Deborah Avant, a George Washington University expert who is writing a book on PMCs. "It's a tool for foreign policy in a less public way - and that is not a good thing in the long term."

Most recently, for example, the State Department approved a license for a US company to help bolster security in Equatorial Guinea, an African country of half a million people that is run by a military dictator and has no US embassy.

Former four-star generals

Defenders the PMCs note that they are staffed mostly by retired military officials and have eased the pressure on US troops, which are increasingly burdened by foreign interventions and peacekeeping missions.

And PMCs dovetail with a larger US policy of encouraging military-to-military ties, in the hope that a professional army can stabilize a fragile democracy.

Thus in some countries, the military firms may be tools of nation-building, not destruction. In Nigeria, where the US recently restored military aid after an era of dictatorship, some aid will pay for a private firm to train a more responsible military.

Because PMCs are not categorized by the US government, and they have received little public attention, it is difficult to determine their scope.

But the industry has been expanding for the past 10 years, and is thought to be worth several billion dollars. During the 1990s, PMCs trained militaries in some 42 countries. Analysts estimate that there are as many as 20 legitimate companies in the US, the largest of which claims to do about $25 million a year in overseas business.

Smaller organizations, which sometimes provide overseas security, are thought to be more numerous, but are hard to track - little more than a company president and a Rolodex full of names.

While some of the companies, particularly those from South Africa and Britain, have been labeled "mercenaries," and have indeed provided firepower for hire, the US firms have far better reputations, and often work hand-in-hand with the Pentagon. Their ranks include former four-star generals.

In the US, the training services are sometimes paid out of the annual foreign aid bill, doled out to friendly or promising countries that may have unstable governments or militaries, such as Nigeria and Colombia. Other times, companies are hired directly by the host country and approved by the US.

Advocates of PMCs say they are more cost-efficient than traditional military forces, although some critics question that.

The only government regulation of PMCs comes through the State Department, which handles their export licensing in much the same manner as it would a crate of guns, says a State Department spokeswoman.

The largest US company, Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) in Alexandria, Va., made a name for itself by training the Croatian Army near the end of the Yugoslav wars. It was viewed as the brains behind the army's most successful campaign, Operation Storm, although MPRI denied that. It also worked in Bosnia, including a mission to prevent cross-border arms transfers.

The firm's employees are never armed, but, military experts say, knowledge and training are often just as valuable as firepower in most armed conflicts.

"No one has ever carried a gun while at MPRI," says Harry Soyster, a company spokesman who is a retired lieutenant general and a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Sure, it gets in the way of business every now and then, but that's all right."

Test case in Africa

This week, MPRI expects to get government approval to go into Equatorial Guinea, an agreement that illustrates the questions some critics have with a so-called privatization of foreign policy.

The contract was initially rejected by two State Department desks, holding it up for two years, Soyster says. It was approved only after MPRI lobbied the department's Africa desk, arguing that if it was not allowed to do the job, someone else would.

Equatorial Guinea, most of which is an island off western Africa, will pay for the contract. It wants to develop a coast guard to protect its vast oil resources, which are being tapped by Mobil Oil, Soyster says.

In doing so, the government could secure probably strengthen its grip on power.

Yet the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema is a rampant violator of human rights, accused of political killings, election fraud, and questionable monetary practices, according to the 1999 State Department world report on Human Rights.

Equatorial Guinea's closest allies seem to be North Korea and Cuba, and it was once the brunt of State Department jokes as the worst overseas post. In 1993, US ambassador John Bennett received a death threat for trying to save local political prisoners.

"The question is, 'Do you want to train a military in modern techniques so it can preserve itself?'" says Arvind Ganesan, who follows the issue for Human Rights Watch.

David Isenberg, an arms-control analyst at DynMeridian, a consulting firm, says PMCs are often used in these borderline situations, when working through official channels is either too cumbersome or politically difficult. "The administration likes it because it avoids the prospect of creating a furor if [something goes wrong]," he says.

But, he explains, the US needs to do a better job of regulating PMCs, which by and large are willing to follow clearly laid rules.

"If the government wants to get the most out of them, they need to regulate them," he says. "That would quiet ... fear that they could become rogues or soldiers of fortune."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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