Peace Researcher 29 – June 2004
You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Equatorial Guinea. I had to make liberal use of my atlas and Encyclopaedia Britannica CD Rom in order to write this. It is nestled in the sweaty armpit of West Africa, bordered by Gabon and Cameroon, and is not to be confused with either Guinea or Guinea Bissau, two other countries in West Africa. Formerly called Spanish Guinea, it was Spain’s only colony in sub-Saharan Africa (a 15th Century treaty had divided the world between Spain and Portugal. The latter got exclusive rights to Africa but a couple of hundred years later agreed to let Spain have its own African colony for sourcing slaves). It is an utterly obscure little country with a population not much bigger than that of Christchurch and is afflicted with one of the worst examples of the dictatorships that have benighted so much of post-colonial Africa. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasigo has been in power since 1979, having displaced another vicious dictator, and is obviously a fan of Saddam Hussein – in one 1990s’ “election”, he claimed to have won with 99% of the vote.
In March 2004, Equatorial Guinea was suddenly catapulted into world headlines. Zimbabwe arrested 64 alleged foreign mercenaries plus three flight crew, and seized the cargo plane that they were on, at Harare Airport. The men were South Africans, Namibians, Angolans, Congolese and a Zimbabwean. The plane, which was full of military equipment, had started from the tiny West African island state of Sao Tome and Principe and had flown to Zimbabwe to collect its passengers and weapons. Equatorial Guinea alleged that the men were mercenaries hired by exiled opposition leaders in Spain, with the backing of British, American and Spanish Intelligence services, aiming to overthrow its government. Furthermore, both Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe alleged that unnamed transnational corporations backed the plot to overthrow the government of the tiny, oil rich nation. An additional 15 foreign mercenaries, the alleged advance guard, were arrested in Equatorial Guinea itself. One of them, a South African, said that their mission had been to abduct the President, force him into Spanish exile and replace him with the leader of the opposition who has already been in Spanish exile for many years (the latter had tried to mount a coup in 1997 and was sentenced, in absentia, to 100 years prison). All of which sounds quite plausible – after all, 2004 has already witnessed the US military assist a coup in Haiti, backing former death squad leaders, and being used to directly seize the elected leader of that country and fly him away to the Central African Republic (proving that he left involuntarily. The Central African Republic does not feature on the wish list of dictators planning on enjoying their illgotten gains in exile).
The company that owned the plane said that it was all a dreadful misunderstanding and that the men were being flown to the Democratic Republic of Congo to provide security for transnational mining projects there. What has been described as Africa’s first world war, with millions of Congolese deaths, and the role of mining transnationals in that, is a whole other story. But neither Zimbabwe nor Equatorial Guinea was buying that explanation. Zimbabwe identified one of those arrested as a former member of Britain’s Special Air Service and a leading figure in the South African mercenary firm, Executive Outcomes. This firm has been a controversial and leading player in several of Africa’s interminable wars of the 1990s, most notably in Angola and Sierra Leone.
Zimbabwe was adamant that the arrested men would face charges under aviation, firearms and immigration laws, and that they could face the death penalty. The story vanished from the media as quickly as it appeared, but it provided a rare glimpse into the murky world of the old fashioned sort of mercenaries, the soldiers of fortune who have plagued post-colonial Africa since at least the 1960s. And if you felt ignorant about Equatorial Guinea, you’re in good company. The Christchurch Press ran two stories on it, giving two different names for the country’s President. My research established that “they” were one and the same man, a man with a string of names.
But these hapless fellows are not the only mercenaries involved with Equatorial Guinea. There are other ones working with its government. It is one of the countries to have State Department–approved US private military companies train and reorganise its military. In fact, these private contractors successfully pressured the US government to lift a ban on American companies providing assistance to Equatorial Guinea. The ban had been imposed because of Equatorial Guinea’s appalling human rights record.
Executive Outcomes is a very familiar name to Peace Researcher readers, for its activities much closer to this part of the world. PR 13, August 1997, included a lengthy article by me entitled “The Dirty Dogs Of War”, which detailed the failed plan by the then government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to hire the British mercenary company, Sandline International, to defeat the separatist guerillas on the island of Bougainville and seize back the huge transnational-owned gold and copper mine at Panguna, which had lain idle since the start of the war, in the 1980s. Sandline was described as being intimately related to Executive Outcomes and shared the same crew of South African mercenaries led by Old Etonian ex-British Army officers. The whole thing came a spectacular gutser – the mercenaries were arrested, a military rebellion forced a major political crisis and the Government was defeated in the ensuing election. It proved a catalyst in the long running Bougainville saga – peace talks ensued, peace was attained and Bougainville now enjoys the status of autonomy within Papua New Guinea.
The good news is that Sandline has had to close down, in April 2004. It cited a lack of official gratitude as the reason, saying that it was because of ”general lack of governmental support for private military companies willing to end armed conflicts in places like Africa. Without such support the ability of Sandline to make a positive difference to countries in countries where there is widespread brutality and even genocidal behaviour is irretrievably diminished” (Sandline Website, 16/4/04; quoted in The National [PNG], 4/5/04). Oh dear, how sad, never mind. On the negative side of the balance sheet, the repercussions of PNG’s disastrous foray into the world of guns for hire, continues to haunt it to this day.
Why the interest in Equatorial Guinea? That can be answered in one word – oil. The US is looking to find an alternative to Middle East oil (the ever-stronger Iraqi resistance is undermining the whole project to steal, at gunpoint, the world’s second largest oil reserves; and Saudi Arabia is no longer the sure bet that it once was). So the US has now switched attention to the Atlantic waters of the Gulf of Guinea states – Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of Congo (which is not to be confused with its much bigger neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo), Angola and Sao Tome and Principe. The US already imports 15% of its annual oil requirements from the Gulf of Guinea and this figure is predicted to exceed 25% by 2015. To stress the importance that the US now attaches to the region, President Bush became the first US President to visit sub-Saharan Africa in his first term, going there in July 2003. The Press headline (8/7/03) summed it up succinctly: “Bush on safari for oil, security”. By 2004 US generals were fanning out across Africa in a hunt for new military bases and security pacts. The African Oil Policy Initiative Group, a lobbying group comprising oil executives and Pentagon officials reported to Congress that the Gulf of Guinea and its vast oil supplies made it a “vital interest in US national security calculations” (Guardian, 17/2/03). It suggested establishing a US military sub-command for the Gulf of Guinea and setting up bases on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Unless the US did more to prop up the oil industry there, commented one senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official, “the oil industry ran the risk of imploding as a result of the region’s inherent instability” (Guardian Weekly, 10/7/03).
But, America’s addiction to oil, and its need to create a bigger and bigger empire of military bases throughout the world, are not my topics in this article. It is the privatisation of war and it’s time to look at the bigger picture than just a few hapless clowns arrested at an African airport.
What really focused attention on the new private armies (who are a different kettle of fish to the old style mercenaries) was the March 2004 killing, incineration, mutilation and public displaying of four American “contractors” in Fallujah, the crucible of Sunni resistance to the American occupation of Iraq. It led directly to the ironfisted US military response, so reminiscent of all the other armies of invasion and occupation of the past 100 years, which, in turn, led to the massive upsurge in the Iraqi resistance that is so effectively bleeding and demoralising the would be coloniser. The victims (who certainly weren’t innocent victims, but nobody deserves to die like that, nor to be treated like that after death) were all former US soldiers, mainly from Special Forces units. The sort of units that US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, relies on to project US military might throughout the world (and which are spectacularly unsuited for the humdrum chore of occupation, let alone nation building). The sort of men who are described as “adrenalin junkies”, meaning they like the big money, the ceaseless buzz of violence, and to hold the power of life or death over thousands of people.
At least 15,000 of these “contractors” are currently working in Iraq (with plenty of Kiwis eager to join them, according to media reports). That makes them the second Coalition military force – there are more private soldiers in Iraq than there are British soldiers (the second biggest “official” force). 30,000 Iraqis also work for these private military companies. It is important to realise that their deaths and injuries do not feature in any US statistics for “our” side’s casualties in this rapidly growing war. They represent a massive privatisation of war.
“Contractors are complicating traditional norms of military command and control, and challenging the basic norms of accountability that are supposed to govern the Government's use of violence. Human rights abuses go unpunished. Reliance on poorly monitored contractors is bleeding the public treasury. The contractors are simultaneously creating opportunities for the Government to evade public accountability, and, in Iraq at least, are on the verge of evolving into an independent force at least somewhat beyond the control of the US military. And, as the contractors grow in numbers and political influence, their power to entrench themselves and block reform is growing.
“Whatever the limitations of the military code of justice and its in-practice application, the code does not apply to the modern-day mercenaries. Indeed, the mechanisms by which the contractors are held responsible for their behavior, and disciplined for mistreating civilians or committing human rights abuses - all too easy for men with guns in a hostile environment - are fuzzy.
“It is unclear exactly what law applies to the contractors, explains Peter W Singer, author of “Corporate Warriors” (Cornell University Press, 2003) and a leading authority on private military contracting. They do not fall under international law on mercenaries, which is defined narrowly. Nor does the national law of the United States clearly apply to the contractors in Iraq - especially because many of the contractors are not Americans.
“Relatedly, many firms do not properly screen those they hire to patrol the streets in foreign nations. ‘Lives, soldiers' and civilians' welfare, human rights, are all at stake’, says Singer. ‘But we have left it up to very raw market forces to figure out who can work for these firms, and who they can work for"… (Focus On The Corporation, 24/4/04; Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman; “A Corporate Military Monster Is Being Created In Iraq”).
The complete lack of accountability and oversight for these private soldiers was dramatically illustrated by the sordid scandal that emerged from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison (which, ironically, had been notorious under Saddam Hussein as a place of torture and execution). Photos depicting the disgraceful and depraved treatment of Iraqi prisoners were published in the world’s media, in April 2004. What was not so widely known was that the interrogators responsible for these prisoners were mercenaries. They gave orders without legal accountability. And a civilian contractor accused of raping a male prisoner was not charged because US military law had no jurisdiction over him. So these sadists were, quite literally, outlaws. Two US civilian firms – Titan Corporation and CACI International Inc – were the contractors at the prison. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who has examined the cases, described the situation as “insanity…These were rank amateurs and there is no legally binding law on these guys as far as I could tell. Why did they let them in the prison?” (Guardian, 30/4/04; “US Military In Torture Scandal; Use of private contractors in Iraqi jail interrogations highlighted by inquiry into abuse of prisoners”; Julian Borger).
The four dead Americans worked for Blackwater Security Consulting, one of the largest of the private military companies and one of the leading players in the privatised war in Iraq. These guys do much more than strut around as heavily armed bodyguards: “The security contractors are already involved in full-fledged battlefield operations, increasingly so as the insurgency in Iraq escalates. A few days after the Americans were killed in Fallujah, Blackwater Security Consulting engaged in full-scale battle in Najaf (the centre of the separate Shi’ite uprising against the occupation. Ed.), with the company flying its own helicopters amidst an intense firefight to resupply its own commandos.
“Now, reports the Washington Post, the security firms are networking formally, ‘organising what may effectively be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence’. Because many of the security contractors work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, as opposed to the US military, they are not integrated into the military's operations. ‘Under assault by insurgents and unable to rely on US and Coalition troops for intelligence or help under duress’, according to the Post, the contractors are banding together. Private occupying commandos? Corporate military helicopters in a battlefield situation? An integrated occupation private intelligence network? Isn't this just obviously a horrible idea?”… (Focus On The Corporation, ibid.).
As mentioned above, many of these private soldiers are not Americans. They include many former British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers and veterans of some of the most vicious regimes of the 20th Century, such as General Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid South Africa. They quite accurately could be described as the scum of the Earth.
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by a former US Navy Special Forces veteran. Since then it has trained more than 50,000 military and law enforcement personnel at its 2,400 hectare facility in North Carolina. “The facility boasts several target ranges and a simulated town for urban warfare training. It is so advanced that some of the US military’s active duty special ops troops have trained there” (Time, 12/4/04; “When Private Armies Take To The Front Lines”; Micahel Duffy). It is located near the major military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and recruits extensively from the Special Forces units based there. Iraq is where Blackwater has hit the headlines.
“…Locals often mistake the guards for Special Forces or CIA personnel, which makes active duty military troops a bit edgy. ‘Those Blackwater guys’, says an intelligence officer in Iraq, ‘they drive around wearing Oakley sunglasses and pointing their guns out of car windows. They have pointed their guns at me, and it pissed me off. Imagine what a guy in Fallujah thinks’. Adds an Army officer, who just returned from Baghdad, ‘They are a subculture’.
“Indeed the relationship between the private soldiers and the real ones isn’t always collaborative. ‘We’ve responded to the military at least half a dozen times but not once have they responded to our emergencies’, says Scott Custer, a co-director of private military company, Custer Battles. ‘We have our own quick reaction force now’. But the private firms are usually cut off from the US military’s intelligence network and from information that could minimise harm to their employees. Noel Koch, who oversaw terrorism policy for the Pentagon in the 1980s and now runs TranSecur, a global information security firm, says private companies ‘aren’t required to have an intelligence collection or analytical capability in house. It’s always assumed that the Government is going to provide intelligence about threats. That, says Koch, means ‘they are flying blind, often guessing about places that they shouldn’t go’… (with fatal results in places like Fallujah. Ed.).
“Several sources familiar with Blackwater operations told Time that the company has in some cases abbreviated training even for crucial missions in war zones. A former private military operator with knowledge of Blackwater’s operational tactics says the firm did not give all its contract warriors in Afghanistan proper training in offensive driving tactics, although missions were to include vehicular and dignitary escort duty. ‘Evasive driving and ambush tactics were not - repeat, were not – covered in training’, this source said…
“At the Pentagon, which has encouraged the outsourcing of security work, there are widespread misgivings about the use of hired guns. A Pentagon official says the outsourcing of security work means the Government no longer has any real control over the training and capabilities of thousands of US and foreign contractors who are packing weapons every bit as powerful as those belonging to the average GI. ‘These firms are hiring anyone they can get. Sure, some of them are Special Forces, but some of them are good, and some are not. Some are too old for this work, and some are too young. But they are not on the US payroll. And so they are not our responsibility’. But with Congress and the Bush Administration reluctant to pay for more active duty troops, the use of contractors in places like Iraq will only grow. A Pentagon official who opposes their use nonetheless detects an obvious if unsentimental virtue: ‘The American public doesn’t get quite as concerned when contractors are killed’” (ibid.).
“…Nor is their presence limited to Iraq. In recent years, soldiers-for-profit have served in Liberia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. They have guarded Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, and built the military detention facilities holding Al Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They have been an essential part of the American war on drugs in Latin America. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, who wrote a book on the private military industry, says it brings in about $US100 billion a year worldwide.
“The industry rose to prominence under (the first) President George Bush — Brown and Root, a Halliburton * subsidiary, received a $US9 million contract to study supplementing military efforts after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The Clinton Administration sent more work to contractors, but it is under the current President, a strong believer in government privatisation, that things started booming. Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater, envisions a day when any country faced with peacekeeping duties will simply call him and place an order. ‘I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world’, he told me. * Halliburton – a huge US transnational corporation, with close ties to leading figures in the Bush Administration. It is one of the main contractors for the US occupation forces in Iraq and the leading profiteer, so much so that it is embroiled in scandals about its ripping off the US military and the American taxpayer in Iraq and Kuwait. Ed.
“This raises some obvious questions. Shouldn't war be a government function? Why rely on the private sector for our national defence, even if it is largely a supporting role? Part of the reason is practical: since the end of the Cold War, the United States military has been shrinking, from 2.1 million in 1989 to 1.4 million today. Supporters of privatisation argue that there simply aren't enough soldiers to provide a robust presence around the world, and that by drafting private contractors to fix helicopters, train recruits and cook dinner, the Government frees up bona fide soldiers to fight the enemy. (Of course, in the field, the line between combatant and noncombatant roles grows fuzzier, particularly because many of the private soldiers are armed). Private contractors are supposed to be cheaper, too, but their cost effectiveness has not been proved.
“Low manpower and cost savings aren't the only reasons these companies appeal to the Pentagon. For one, substituting contractors for soldiers offers the Government a way to avoid unpopular military forays. According to Myles Frechette, who was President Bill Clinton's Ambassador to Colombia, private companies performed jobs in Latin America that would have been politically unpalatable for the Armed Forces. After all, if the Government were shipping home soldiers' corpses from the coca fields, the public outcry would be tremendous. However, more than 20 private contractors have been killed in Colombia alone since 1998, and their deaths have barely registered.
“This points to the biggest problem with the outsourcing of war: there is far less accountability to the American public and to international law than if real troops were performing the tasks. In the 1990's, several employees of one company, DynCorp, were implicated in a sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia involving girls as young as 12. Had these men been soldiers, they would have faced court-martial proceedings. As private workers, they were simply put on the next plane back to America”… (New York Times, 2/4/04; “Need An Army? Just Pick Up The Phone”; Barry Yeoman).
More and more it is private soldiers who are doing the mundane, dirty, dangerous and politically unacceptable jobs. This trend accelerated in the 1990s. For example, Military Professional Resources Inc. helped to plan Croatia’s devastating Operation Storm offensive against the Bosnian-Serb Army that turned the tide in the Balkan war. There are Congressional restraints on what the US military can do in Colombia – the private armies face no such problems, as they fight alongside the brutal Colombian military against Leftist guerillas and coca growers (the plant from which cocaine is produced). They fly armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships in that country’s multiple wars. “…They operate the intelligence and communications systems at the US Northern Command in Colorado, which is responsible for coordinating a response to any attack on the United States. And licensed by the State Department, they are contracting with foreign governments, training soldiers and reorganising militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea”… (Mother Jones, May 2003, “Soldiers Of Good Fortune”, Barry Yeoman).
It is not only American companies that are creaming it in the privatised war and security business. For example, there are several British, South African and Israeli companies. John Davidson, managing director of British firm Rubicon, says: “We have a lot of business in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Dubai. Western companies have been well established there. Since September 11 (2001) there has been a steady increase in the amount of work we are required to do” (Observer, “Selling Soldiers”; Oliver Morgan, reproduced in the Press, 3/11/03). The private armies have the express backing of Britain’s Labour government. In 2002, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, wrote in a Foreign Office Green Paper: “Today’s world is a far cry from the 1960s, when private military activity usually meant mercenaries of the rather unsavoury kind involved in post-colonial or neo-colonial conflicts” (Newsweek, ”Dogs Of Peace To The Rescue”; Eric Pape and Michael Meyer, reproduced in the New Zealand Herald, 23-24/8/03). By contrast, France has broadened its law outlawing mercenaries to include corporations as well as individuals.
But it is the Bush Administration’s drive to privatise war that is providing the biggest growth in this cancerous industry, which is in the US. “…Indeed, the Bush Administration's push to privatise war is swiftly turning the military-industrial complex of old into something even more far-reaching: a complex of military industries that do everything but fire weapons. For-profit military companies now enjoy an estimated $US100 billion in business worldwide each year, with much of the money going to Fortune 500 firms like Halliburton, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. Secretary of the Army Thomas White, a former vice chairman of Enron, ‘has really put a mark on the wall for getting government employees out of certain functions in the military’, says retired Colonel Tom Sweeney, professor of strategic logistics at the US Army War College. ‘It allows you to focus your manpower on the battlefield kinds of missions’.
“Private military companies, for their part, are focusing much of their manpower on Capitol Hill. Many are staffed with retired military officers who are well connected at the Pentagon - putting them in a prime position to influence Government policy and drive more business to their firms... Because they operate with little oversight, using contractors also enables the military to skirt troop limits imposed by Congress and to carry out clandestine operations without committing US troops or attracting public attention. ‘Private military corporations become a way to distance themselves and create what we used to call plausible deniability’ says Daniel Nelson, a former professor of civil-military relations at the Defense Department's Marshall European Center for Security Studies. ‘It's disastrous for democracy’” (Mother Jones, May 2003, “Soldiers Of Good Fortune”, Barry Yeoman).
“…The larger become the military contractors, the more influence they have in Congress and the Pentagon, the more they are able to shape policy, immunise themselves from proper oversight, and expand their reach. The private military firms are led by ex-generals, the most effective possible lobbyists of their former colleagues -- and frequently former subordinates -- at the Pentagon. As they grow in size, and become integrated into the military-industrial complex (Northrop Grumman has swallowed a number of the military contractors, for example), their political leverage in Congress and among civilians in the executive branch grows.
“Over the last decade or so, the phenomenon of private military contracting has grown unchecked. We're now at a precipice, with action to constrain the contractors about to become far, far more difficult than if the madness of employing mercenaries had been averted in the first place” (Focus On The Corporation, 24/4/04; Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman; “A Corporate Military Monster Is Being Created In Iraq”).
Plausible deniability has always been a favourite tactic of the military. For example, in Third World countries such as the Philippines, the military creates, trains and arms civilian militias that are simply death squads. These groups have a well deserved reputation for horrendous and unchecked human rights abuses, including torture, mass murders, abductions, disappearances, the whole ghastly repertoire. The military simply says this is nothing to do with us, talk to those “civilian self defence groups”. And when it becomes necessary for the military to actually fight the various rebel armies (Communists or Muslim separatists, in the case of the Philippines) – as opposed to terrorising and murdering unarmed civilians – they use the death squad guys as cannon fodder. Nobody is terribly upset if some of them get killed or wounded. This is exactly the model now being practised on a vast scale in Iraq, and it is the same model that will be coming to a war near you if the Bush Administration has anything to do with it. It is the logical end result of privatisation – unaccountable mercenary armies waging their own wars, for profit and territory. It’s one more reason why the Iraqi resistance needs the support of the rest of the world to drive out the occupiers of their country.
And a step was taken in that direction in April 2004, when the US Marines who had been besieging and pounding Fallujah, were ordered to retreat to fallback positions around the city, to be replaced by a hastily created Iraqi military force, commanded by a former general in Saddam’s Army (who rubbed salt into the wound by reporting for duty in his old uniform, complete with beret and the obligatory Saddam moustache worn by all the officer corps in the ousted regime). They were given a hero’s welcome by the inhabitants. The US military had originally attacked Fallujah to capture those responsible for the death and mutilation of the four US private soldiers. They have not been captured or surrendered. Most ominously for the US, the retreat took place on April 30th, a fact which was not remarked upon at the time. No wonder – it marks the date in 1975 on which Vietnam was finally liberated, the previous crushing defeat for US imperial ambitions. Iraq is not yet Vietnam. But it is only a matter of time. All the ingredients are there. Just add a lot more blood.