TCS Daily

Hired Guns

By Noah Shachtman - June 26, 2003 12:00 AM

A consortium of mercenary groups has made the UN a deceptively simple proposal: give us $200 million, and we'll help bring an end to the war in the Congo.

Tribal militias are running rampant in the eastern part of the central African nation, slaughtering hundreds of villagers at a time. Since 1998, the violence there has claimed 3.3 million lives.

The world's response has been, to say the least, underwhelming. A few thousand UN peacekeeping troops have been stationed there since 2001. But these brave souls watched helplessly last month as the militias murdered 430 innocents in the provincial capital of Bunia.

The killings shamed the European Union into sending 1,400 French and British soldiers into the area. But they'll operate only in Bunia -- no matter how bloody things turn in the countryside. And on September 1, the troops are going home. End of story.

What happens then? The UN Security Council is trying to decide that now. An unusual suggestion has come from the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), an association a private military companies. They won't stand in between the warring armies. But for $100-$200 million, five such contractors could form a rapid reaction force, to combat the militias' mass rape and ethnic cleansing; train the local police force; provide logistics for UN operations in the area; and use aerial surveillance to keep tabs on the region.

"It's a novel concept. And certain aspects deserved to be implemented ASAP," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the recently-published Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. "But the proposal needs to be fleshed out much further before it can be taken seriously. What is the chain of command? Who decides when to deploy this rapid reaction force? How do we ensure accountability, and how do we make it workable under international law?"

For the moment, the UN Security isn't even bothering to consider such questions, as it ponders its next move in the Congo. They won't even talk to the IPOA, its president, Doug Brooks, said.

But there aren't that many other options on the table for the Congo.

"I cannot -- and don't know anyone else who does -- support a private military solution," said Peter Gantz, with the Partnership for Effective Peace Operations, a coalition of think tanks and aid groups. "But it's hard to dismiss, in the absence on any other credible solution."

"It's the only thing that might be successful," he added.

The private military firms making the offer have had a jumbled history: stunning successes, and awful failures. In 1996, Liberian rebels sacked the capital city, Monrovia. ICI of Oregon, employing Soviet Red Army veterans and former US special forces, helped save the American embassy there. Battlefield consultants MPRI (Military Professionals Resources Inc.) helped turned the Croatian army from a "group of drunken militias" into a force capable of a "multi-arm, NATO-style offensive," Singer said. The attack turned the tide of the Balkan conflict. But it was "one of the worst episodes of 'ethnic cleansing,' an event that left more than 100,000 homeless," according to the New York Times.

Airscan, a Florida-based aerial surveillance firm, has kept watch over NASA space launches. But, in Colombia, company employees mistakenly told government pilots that a village was filled with FARC guerillas. The area was bombed. No rebels were there, however. Instead, 18 civilians died.

With such a mixed record, Singer isn't sure he's comfortable giving these corporate guns-for-hire the authority to pull the trigger in the Congo. The companies say they'll employ for their rapid reaction force 475 to 1200 British-trained Gurkha fighters from Nepal -- guys with a seriously bad-ass reputation. But it's unclear who would command the mercenaries. And what happens, Singer asks in the latest issue of Policy Review, if corporate interests and humanitarian interests begin to divide?

Security is now at the mercy of any change in market costs and incentives... A firm hired to establish a safe haven might later find the situation more difficult than it originally expected. The operation might become unprofitable or, due to any increase in local opposition, more dangerous than anticipated. Thus, the company could find it in its corporate interest to pull out. Or, even if the company is kept in line by market constraints, its employees might decide that the personal risks they face in sticking it out in an operation are too high relative to their pay. Not bound by military law, they can simply break their contracts without fear of punishment and find safer, better paying work elsewhere.

A better, safer idea, Singer believes, is to let the private military groups handle logistics and transport. For years, contractors like ICI have been carrying out these duties for armies around the world -- including our own. It may be time, he thinks, to give the firms a chance in the Congo.

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