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Safety at a price: Military expertise for sale or rent

Private firms are called both a check on violence and a source of it

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Affairs Writer

Last of three parts

Rebels in Sierra Leone used to play a vicious game with villagers.

"They'd write a series of grisly punishments -- cut off hand, cut off head, etc. -- on little bits of paper and force villagers to draw lots," recalls Lt. Col. Tim Spicer. "Their fate would be whatever was written on the paper."

    Safety at a price

Part I: Security is a booming, sophisticated, global business

Part II: Executive protection a fast growing sector in security boom


The civil war in the small west African country -- Sierra Leone is about the size of South Carolina, with a population of less than 5 million -- has been one of the world's most vicious. Since 1991, about 20,000 people have been killed; 300,000 have become refugees.

Spicer's firm, Sandline International, trained, armed and led forces fighting for the civilian government. Sandline and another private military company, Executive Outcomes, a South African-based firm composed mostly of ex-commandos who worked for the former apartheid government, are typical of a new breed of private security firms hired by governments to fight for them.

The two companies say they help prevent violence; others say they foment it.

Eight years of terror in Sierra Leone officially ended this past July with a pact that provided amnesty for war crimes and caused Sierra Leone's president, Ahmed Kabbah, to take eight of the rebels into his Cabinet. But rebel forces still attack villages in some parts of the country -- looting, burning houses, raping women and mutilating civilians -- despite a growing force of U.N. peacekeepers. So the government might again call in the "dogs of war."

Corporate and free-lance mercenaries are involved in conflicts throughout Africa. Former employees of Executive Outcomes are reported to be fighting on both sides in the Angolan civil war. Ukrainian troops have been reported fighting for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone. Russian pilots have flown for both sides in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war. French and Israeli mercenaries and North Koreans have been spotted in the Congo.

In other parts of the world, Ukrainians have been reported fighting in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, and in two civil wars in Georgia. Israeli mercenaries have been sighted in Colombia and Kosovo. Sandline received a contract worth millions to suppress a revolt in Papua New Guinea, but it ended badly when Spicer was flown out of the country at gunpoint.

The end of the Cold War produced a surge in civil conflicts and mercenary activity. "In the old days, one or the other of the superpowers would have snuffed them out," said Spicer.

Post Cold War demobilization also put tens of thousands of trained soldiers out of work. In the nations of the former Soviet bloc, many faced a choice between becoming mercenaries or going hungry.

Private military companies like Executive Outcomes and Sandline are frowned on by the United Nations and by most governments. In a report adopted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights last year, Special Rapporteur Enrique Ballesteros of Peru urged U.N. member nations to outlaw private military companies.

"A mercenary is a criminal," Ballesteros said. "He acts not out of altruistic motives, but to earn money in exchange for his tactical and strategic skills and his handling of weapons and explosives."

The U.N. General Assembly in 1989 adopted the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. So far, only 12 countries have signed it -- and at least two of those have hired mercenaries.

Despite these U.N. initiatives, the U.N. itself has employed Lifeguard Security, a company linked to Executive Outcomes, to guard U.N. offices and residences in Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown.

David Shearer, a former analyst for the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, argues that private military companies may be a source of stability in some places where chaos prevails.

"Reluctance [on the part of Western countries] to intervene directly -- the result of declining strategic interest in, for example, Africa -- and public intolerance of casualties has made some military companies increasingly useful," Shearer wrote in "Private Armies and Military Intervention," a 1998 monograph.

CARE Canada, a humanitarian organization that provides aid to refugees in Africa, recently commissioned a report that concluded: "It is perhaps time to consider the private alternative-- a 'foreign legion' comprised of paid, volunteer, professionally trained personnel employed without regard to national origin" to protect humanitarian workers.

Unarmed aid workers in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been attacked or manipulated into supporting one side or the other in civil wars. Just last month, three local CARE USA workers in Somalia and Sudan were killed in ambushes; another 11 contractors working for CARE USA died when their truck was attacked by militia and hit a land mine in Somalia.

The CARE Canada report found that some governments were unwilling or unable to protect relief workers, and that Western governments did not want to intervene militarily where their national interests were not directly threatened.

Robert Foulon, a retired State Department officer who served in Africa and now advises NATO, thinks NATO should create a mercenary force modeled on the French Foreign Legion.

"Because of its volunteer character, French governments were able to deploy this force with little reference to the concerns of its domestic conscript army, the clamors of domestic politics or popular sensitivities," Foulon said.

David Isenberg, an analyst for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C., concedes that Executive Outcomes and Sandline have been effective, but is no fan of private military companies.

"Mercenary companies become a temporary means of propping up the existing order but do nothing to address underlying causes of unrest and violence," he said. "These khaki- and Brooks Brothers-clad mercenaries endorse the idea that power belongs to those who can afford it."

Thomas Adams, a retired Army lieutenant colonel writing in Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, divides mercenaries into three categories:

"Traditional" mercenaries are individuals and groups who have military skills directly applicable to combat and immediate combat support, he said. Executive Outcomes and Sandline fall into this category, though most traditional mercenaries these days come from former Soviet bloc countries.

The second type consists of commercial companies "that provide the kind of services expected of a general staff in one of the more developed national armies." A general staff plans training exercises and military operations and organizes logistics. The leading firm in this category is MPRI of Alexandria, Va.

The third type "provides highly specialized services with a military application, but these groups are not in themselves notably military or paramilitary in organization and methods." An example he cited is Airscan, a Titusville, Fla., company that provides aerial surveillance for oil companies in Angola.

Sandline and MPRI say they work only for established governments and only with the tacit consent of their own governments. Sandline was approached by Kosovars to train the Kosovo Liberation Army, which seeks independence from the Serbian-led government of Yugoslavia, but the company turned down the contract because of a U.N. arms embargo.

MPRI, whose CEO is Carl Vuono, the former Army chief of staff, has a 14-member board that boasts 12 retired four-star generals and admirals. It has become a de facto arm of U.S. foreign policy. MPRI trained the Croatian army before its successful offensive to push the Serbs from the Krajina region in 1995 and continues to train the Bosnian army.

With the State Department's permission, MPRI is negotiating with the Angolan government to train its army. The firm also teaches Army ROTC at 28 universities and provides assistant military attaches at three U.S. embassies in a pilot program.

Sandline regards MPRI as its foremost competitor, but MPRI spokesman Harry Soyster, who once headed the Defense Intelligence Agency, demurs: "They carry guns. We don't," said Soyster, a retired Army lieutenant general.

Both supporters and opponents of private military companies agree that efforts to ban them will probably prove futile.

Last year, the majority black government of South Africa passed a law regulating private military companies, eventually prompting Executive Outcomes to close its doors. But most of its employees went to work for other firms within the same industrial consortium, including Lifeguard Security.

Great Britain is considering legislation to regulate such operations. In the United States, private military companies must obtain licenses from the State Department to work in another country, but it is not against U.S. law for individual Americans to become mercenaries.

Spicer said Sandline would welcome regulation if it were properly drawn.

"Without regulation -- preferably under the auspices of the U.N. -- there is nothing to stop the less scrupulous working for the 'bad guys' whenever it suits them."

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