Blackwater Worldwide's gunfights in Iraq have attracted more congressional scrutiny than the private security industry would like. It was bound to happen, though. After all, men with guns tend to draw attention. And isn't that the point?
But while Congress and the public decide what to make of this new generation of corporate warriors, and what rules if any should apply to them, the industry as a whole isn't looking back.
In October, leaders in the private military security industry -- ArmorGroup, DynCorp, MPRI, and several others -- gathered at the Phoenix Park Hotel near the Capitol for the annual three-day summit of their trade group, the International Peace Operations Association. Panel speakers and members of the audience debated the future of nation-building efforts in failed states. Almost snapping to attention, the former military officers who dominate this industry introduced themselves in sincere baritones of "Lieutenant Colonel So-and-So, retired," or "Major So-and-So, retired." The one active-duty soldier I met handing out his business card that day, Army Lt. Col. James Boozell, a branch chief of the Stability Operations/Irregular Warfare Division at the Pentagon, said that the U.S. military was in fact experiencing a "watershed" moment in its 200-plus-year history -- nation building was now a core military mission to be led by the Army.
"The Air Force has determined they can do very little from 80,000 feet," Boozell deadpanned as he sat on a panel, "and the Navy has determined they can do even less nation building from 30 miles offshore." The audience chuckled as Boozell, clicking through his slide show, added that "stability operations" -- as the Pentagon and its contractors refer to nation building and peacekeeping -- would be as critical to the U.S. military as combat operations, a heresy that just a decade ago inspired disdain for then-President Clinton from military officers and disparagement from presidential candidate George W. Bush, who denounced nation building in one of the 2000 presidential debates. But, Boozell later said in an interview, since the Taliban's ouster in Afghanistan and the outbreak of the bloody insurgency in Iraq, "we get it."
Boozell adds, however, that the Army can't possibly raise up failed states without the State Department and "the civilian piece lending a hand," and that includes the U.S. Agency for International Development, private international relief and development groups -- often called nongovernmental organizations -- and, of course, private security contractors. If the colonel's pitch didn't exactly surprise a room full of knowing ex-military officers, his presence at the association's trade meeting sent a clear message -- boom times for nation building are here to stay.
The Army understands this. Globalization has weakened borders and ratcheted up commerce even as it breaks down a country's physical and psychological security. Transnational actors such as Al Qaeda are seeking bases in failed and feeble states worldwide. Africa is particularly vulnerable. And the effects of climate change -- massive droughts, for instance -- are predicted to spark even more conflicts in the poorest nations.
Stability operations sound like just what the doctor ordered, don't they? Certainly, the military consultants and private security contractors who specialize in setting up militaries and governments, and who sometimes help them collapse, are tailor-made for what's ahead. Right now, the debate is about private security contractors -- in particular, Blackwater's shooting of civilians in Iraq -- and how to control these corporate warriors in a theater of conflict. Maybe that's the least of our worries.
The New Military-Industrial Complex
Precisely when President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" turned from a passive into an active player on the battlefield and in Washington is hard to say. But in the 21st century, the complex has evolved from an industry of defense contractors that makes bombs, bullets, tanks, ships, and planes into an "unofficial" but quite active arm of the military. This new complex supports the military on the battlefield with logisticians and even armed troops. Industry leaders are more often than not retired generals who know which doors to knock on in the Pentagon and Congress to secure desired contracts. The Britannica Online Encyclopedia summed up the relationship that Eisenhower warned us of some 50 years ago. The military services, it says, "ensure that their suppliers remain financially viable. And suppliers attempt to ensure that public spending for their products does not decline." In 50 years, how different will that old relationship with suppliers like Boeing be from the new relationship that the military is building with the Blackwaters, DynCorps, and MPRIs?
To be fair, the benefits of a private sector supporting stability operations in failing states are significant. Contractors and their "on call" employees -- former soldiers and officers -- have experience aplenty. But as stability operations become the norm worldwide, it is certainly possible that civilian and military interests could blur into a self-perpetuating, symbiotic relationship. Experts wonder if it could lead the United States into a period of "liberal imperialism" that oddly mirrors the British, French, and Dutch East India companies of the 1600s and 1700s -- private entities sanctioned by governments to do their bidding. Furthermore, as soldiers look to lucrative futures in the private sector while serving a national flag, the military's traditional political neutrality could erode. Working closely with highly paid contractors, envious soldiers from the enlisted and officer ranks might gravitate to the private security field and, over time, hollow out the Army.
Origins in Africa
Private armies, which have been around for centuries, started to regain prominence at the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union tottering in the late 1980s, the U.S. Army scaled back 60 percent of its Materiel Command (i.e., logistics operations), writes Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution in his book Corporate Warriors, even while Eastern Bloc weapons -- machine guns, fighter jets, and tanks -- were flooding the market. Almost immediately, militarily weak African countries once considered Cold War chess pieces were abandoned by both sides and they drifted into butchery -- aided by a surplus of cheap weapons.
By the mid-1990s, one of the first private military contractors, Executive Outcomes -- founded by former South African soldiers -- was operating in Sierra Leone, with mixed results. Although EO's work in Sierra Leone was underwritten by a mining company, Branch Energy, which had interests in the country's diamond mines, Singer notes, the mostly black ex-South African Defense Force soldiers were cheered for beating back a rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front. But others believe that EO later enabled a coup that overthrew the government that had invited them in.
In the United States, on the other hand, private security contracting took a more benign track at first. As the U.S. armed forces began to shrink after the Cold War, eight high-ranking U.S. military officers who were retiring realized that the world was becoming less stable and that mission tempo would probably increase for the active-duty military. And so in 1987, Military Professional Resources Inc. was born -- its first CEO was retired Army Maj. Gen. Vernon Lewis, an artillery officer who did three combat tours in Vietnam and Korea and whose first contracting company, Cypress International, worked on the M-1 Abrams tank.
MPRI's spokesman, Rick Kiernan, a retired Army colonel and former Special Forces member, explained the context of MPRI's relationship with the Pentagon from his office in Alexandria, Va. Noting that after a 20-year career, military retirees are still young, he said: "Here they are at 45 or 46 years old. They've got the rest of their life in front of them. They have experience in a certain skill. So why not take those skills ... and then work with the Department of Defense and say, 'Are there things, less than war, that we can help you with? Doctrine? Literature? Staff augmentation?' "
MPRI has 3,000 employees worldwide, with about 10,000 personnel "on call." Its revenues in 2006 totaled some $547 million. In 2000, the company was bought by L-3 Communications, the nation's sixth-largest military contractor, which has 70-plus divisions and, according to its website, had more than $2 billion in revenues in 2005. MPRI claims expertise in combat training, democracy transition, peacekeeping support operations, force protection, counter-terrorism, logistics, weapons systems management, software support, inventory control, and Army readiness support. In 2000 it earned $4.3 million developing "long-range plans" to help Colombia wage its drug war, and, in conjunction with the Justice Department, it trains law enforcement officers in foreign countries.
The worldwide private military industry rakes in $20 billion to $100 billion annually with more than 150 companies operating in 50-plus countries. Private military companies differ from mercenaries, their leaders say, because they operate openly in a corporate environment with voluntary industry standards, and often under government contract. Blackwater Worldwide, known for recruiting ex-Special Forces operators to guard high-ranking officials and for its ties to the White House, is not, despite many press reports and its cocky attitude, the most powerful private military company in the world. Other companies, including ArmorGroup, DynCorp, and MPRI -- each with multiple specialties, from aiding drug interdiction in Colombia to flying unmanned Predator planes in Afghanistan -- are generally bigger and better connected. For instance, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, a former Army chief of staff, sits on DynCorp's board of directors. These companies are so well versed in the mundane needs of military operations that, if asked, they can do nearly everything that a military can.
The Rise of MPRI
Kiernan says that MPRI's first large contract was not stateside but in the Balkans. In 1994, the Clinton administration, eager to end Bosnian Serbs' rampages, hired the company to establish and mentor the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina's defense and interior ministries. MPRI was also contracted to train the Croatian army. Coincidently or not, in 1995 the once-inept army launched "Operation Storm" and crushed the Yugoslavian-backed Serbs, helping to end the regional war.
"Critics charged that MPRI provided training and tactical skills that enabled the Croatian military to perpetrate one of the largest episodes of ethnic cleansing in the breakup of former Yugoslavia," wrote the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative journalism organization based in Washington. But Kiernan said that the timing was coincidental and that the yearlong training that MPRI provided to the Croatians did not involve tactical oversight of Operation Storm. "A lot of times people will say, 'Aha! MPRI went over and met with these guys, developed war plans, and the next thing you know this and that happened,' " Kiernan said. "That was not the case." MPRI's website in November, however, explicitly said, "In November 1994, MPRI was contracted to train the Croatian army in their civil war against the Serbs."
Since Bosnia, the company's relationship with the U.S. Defense Department has deepened. MPRI has operated more than 200 Army ROTC programs across the country; and Kiernan estimates that in the last five years, its personnel -- in blue blazers with the "MPRI" logo on the pocket -- have recruited soldiers in 47 states. Ninety-eight percent of its 300 contracts are with the Defense, Justice, and State departments. In Afghanistan, MPRI has about 250 employees supporting President Hamid Karzai's defense ministry. The company has also helped train the Iraqi army.
MPRI advertises that it works only on international projects endorsed by the U.S. government, and that claim is true as far as it goes. But the company's well-connected executives, most of them former military brass, know how to lobby Congress to get the contracts they want. Indeed, DynCorp, MPRI, and other private security contractors are heavily staffed and run by former officers who maintain close ties to the men they once led. MPRI's current president, retired Army Gen. Carl E. Vuono, once commanded both the Army's current chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, and Gen. David Petraeus, who leads U.S. forces in Iraq. Both men were Vuono's senior aides.
Deborah Avant is a political science professor and the director of international studies at the University of California (Irvine) as well as a leading authority on private militaries. In her book The Market for Force, she writes that after MPRI requested a license to evaluate Equatorial Guinea's defense department in 1998, the State Department denied the permit because of the West African country's poor human-rights record. MPRI ex-generals then lobbied Congress and the State Department, arguing that engaging the country "rather than punishing it" would, Avant writes, "foster better behavior in the future and enhance U.S. oil interests." The application was then approved but was quickly flagged by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. MPRI executives again pressed their case to the right people; in 2000, although Equatorial Guinea's human-rights record had not changed, State approved the contract.
"I think that the thing you're pointing out with MPRI's contract is the degree to which a company with a commercial interest can have influence on policy," Avant said in an interview. "Now, of course, that happens all the time. But I think it nonetheless opens the question of whether U.S. foreign policy is in the pursuit of 'U.S. interests' by some objective definition, or whether it's in pursuit of interests of a smaller number of people."
Whether private security contractors diminish national sovereignty or are merely a symptom of its diminishment, the notion of private armies is not new. In medieval times, European monarchs hired "free companies" of professional soldiers to fight their wars. But the Hundred Years' War from 1337 to 1453 -- a series of wars, really, between France and England -- and the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648 created a need for large armies filled out by citizen soldiers, managed by a centralized government, faithful to a nationalist identity, and paid for by taxes. After the Hundred Years' War, demobilized free companies sometimes looted the European countryside. Eventually, to try to minimize the damage, King Charles VII of France hired the best companies and turned them into a standing army. His decision was quickly imitated throughout Europe.
"As citizen armies became the new norm, states also began to pass neutrality laws, which prohibited their citizens' enlistment in foreign armies," Singer writes. States enacted such prohibitions, he added, because the monarchy had an interest in maintaining control over its militaries and societies.
James Cockayne, an associate at the International Peace Academy in New York City, a think tank dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution, is an Australian lawyer specializing in international law. He has worked on international war-crimes trials and has studied the development of private security contractors. In an essay called "The Global Reorganization of Legitimate Violence," he notes that private armies played a crucial role in the evolution of the nation-state. In the late-medieval period, he writes, the burgeoning mercantile class, especially in such places as Italy and the Netherlands, were rich enough to hire private armies. A boom industry was thus born in these richer states, one that resembled the loop between today's military contractors and the U.S. government. "Some states became increasingly dependent on the taxation of strong capitalist groups," Cockayne writes. These groups "in turn developed an interest in the demand supplied by state war-making activities" -- which is to say that the merchants started making armaments and military supplies -- "producing what one writer has labeled a 'military commercial complex.' "
By the time Europeans were exploring the Americas, reliance on mercenaries was waning. But colonialism led to the development of a more corporatized warrior, the kind embodied in the heavily armed Dutch and British East India companies. These companies were granted licenses to act with state authority -- even to make war -- thereby "masking the role that private actors played in organizing 'public' violence," Cockayne says.
Could today's private security contractors evolve into a British East India Company model? Cockayne, in an interview, said no. "I think it's unlikely that in the near future governments will contemplate ever handing over their responsibilities of government or governance to private organizations," he said. "But I do think the era of the nation-state as the central monopolist of the use of force is pretty much over."
Avant mostly agreed, but she suggested that the current arrangement with multiple contractors might be worse than the setup with the East India companies. "In some ways, the British government had more control because it delegated complete authority over a territory to one company," Avant said, noting that the U.S. government contracts to many kinds of companies globally. "The East India Company, for better or for worse, was the authority in a given territory. In the contracting situation that you have now, you actually are diffusing authority."
Broadly viewed, globalization and its diffusion of authority have led academics to suggest that we're in a period of "neomedievalism," a phrase coined by political theorist Hedley Bull. Writing in the 1970s, Bull suggested that the United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations were undermining the nation-state's authority, a development he saw as a good thing. Today, some academics, including Rutgers University's Philip G. Cerny and George Washington University's James Rosenau, believe that the phenomenon has taken a turn toward the Dark Ages. They argue that transnational actors -- from Al Qaeda to multinational corporations to private security contractors and even individuals empowered by the Internet -- are undermining national sovereignty. And to these academics, that is not necessarily a good thing.
In critical ways, the U.S. Army agrees with this assessment. The evidence? In November 2005, Defense Department directive 3000.05 declared that stability operations were now a "core" mission of the U.S. military, in coordination with the State Department, "to help establish order that advances U.S. interests and values" in failing states. In February 2008, the military is expected to roll out its updated Operations Field Manual 3-0, which places equal emphasis on offense, defense, and stability operations. President Bush, meanwhile, has directed the Pentagon to create the U.S. Africa Command by late 2008 to "help coordinate the work of other U.S. government agencies, particularly the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development" to assist African governments and their young rapid-reaction African Standby Force, meant "to provide security and respond in times of need" to troubled nations.
Finally, as The Washington Post reported in November, Gen. Petraeus returned to Washington to help pick the next 40 brigadier generals who will lead the Army. That move made it clear that Petraeus's specialties -- counterinsurgency and stability operations -- are here to stay. "It's unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals [promotion] board," retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, told The Post.
But perhaps the most intriguing recent "first" is that the officer tapped to head the new stability operations division in the Pentagon, Col. Simon P. Wolsey, whose title is division chief of stability and irregular warfare, is British. It took nine months, 384 e-mails, 10 contentious meetings of top-ranking officers, and an open letter from the deputy chief of staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace, to obtain security clearances for Wolsey. But for the first time in U.S. history, a foreign officer holds a U.S. command billet.
A Brit Teaches the Americans
Wolsey, who is now halfway through a three-year tour commanding the new division, says it was simply luck that he was offered the post as he finished at the U.S. Army War College. The Army chief of staff wanted a soldier who could think outside the box, said Boozell, who is Wolsey's deputy. And it didn't hurt that Wolsey understood the subtleties of nation building -- particularly British colonialism's successes and failures. He also points out that the British army possesses a different mind-set, which is the other reason he was tapped: It doesn't have the same reluctance toward nation building that the U.S. Army has. In fact, Wolsey says that because British forces tend to be the government's "insurance policy," he has no qualms about doing whatever he is ordered to do -- he has been a firefighter, a prison guard, and a garbage collector, all during national strikes.
"I think our military is basically used to doing whatever the government asks them to do," Wolsey said in an interview. "And so when I'm asked what the British view of nation building is, I say, 'Fine. We'll do nation building. Counterinsurgency. We'll do war fighting. Or we'll go and pick up garbage.' "
His office in the Pentagon is still in its infancy, Wolsey acknowledges. But he says that, if done right, stability operations in Africa will, and should, be more preventive. One possibility under discussion is forming three 22-man advisory teams that would go in early to train a military and assess the needs of a country before it collapses. Of course, private contractors would be critical to setting up government ministries and institutions. "Basically, you get these countries at the crossroads," Wolsey said, "and stop them from falling over the edge, so hopefully there won't be any requirement for further military involvement."
But Boozell, recognizing that humanitarian operations can also "produce nothing but reliance," agreed that weak nation-states could become dependent on contractors originally hired to reconstitute a government but who become crucial to running it. So there's a need to be careful. "In conjunction with a humanitarian effort, you must have a developmental piece teaching them to survive on their own," Boozell said during an interview in the Pentagon. "We have learned that. But whether or not we remember that when we begin a program -- ?" He left the question hanging in the air.
Rather than creating a separate branch of the Army for stability operations, all incoming soldiers will have an extra three weeks of basic training to incorporate nation building into their war-fighting toolbox, Boozell explains enthusiastically. And officers will be hypereducated in stability operations throughout their careers, returning to military universities to refine the lessons they first experienced in the field. "The military cannot design specialized forces to do nothing but stability operations. If you do, the bill to the taxpayer would be monumental," he said. "And the threat to national security would be unacceptable" because too few war fighters would be left. (One of the proposals on the table had been to convert 50 percent of the Army's 527,000-plus soldiers into a stability operations force.)
Wolsey adds that once his new division is up and running, the Army intends to consult with international nongovernmental organizations and international institutions such as the World Bank. The Pentagon's stability operations directive calls for coordination "with relevant U.S. departments and agencies, foreign governments and security forces, international organizations, NGOs, and private sector individuals."
Oil and Water
But there's one problem -- private relief and development groups and other organizations might not want to work with the U.S. military. Relief groups are steadfast about their neutrality when they are working in war zones in unstable countries; they don't want one side accusing them of helping the other. In an essay, Carolyn Bryan of USAID writes that contractors and NGOs may not want to compromise their neutrality, because "it increases their risk of being targeted by insurgents." This separation between the military and the NGOs is called "humanitarian space," Bryan says, "and is not always understood by the military, who would prefer to join forces with the NGOs and their activities."
The in-country neutrality of the NGOs, however, goes against the grain of the U.S. military, or perhaps any military, whose institutional structure and traditions are based on loyalty to the unit and to the commander-in-chief, even when that loyalty means segregation from the larger society.
Army Maj. Richard M. Wrona Jr., a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is currently attached to AFRICOM, has written insightfully about the complex split between American civil and military society, which he says has been exacerbated by the advent of the modern all-voluntary military.
He also argues that the Bush administration, through its heavy reliance on private contractors for the Iraq war and its refusal to demand sacrifice from Americans, has widened this "schism" even as it has undermined the military services. By augmenting the military with private contractors in Iraq, Wrona says, the Bush administration hurt recruitment and retention. Many soldiers left for better pay in the private sector; those still in uniform feel some jealousy and resentment toward the better-paid hired guns. The private contractors "contradict the military culture's foundation of sacrifice for the collective good," writes Wrona, who has taught at West Point and served with the 82nd Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade. Furthermore, he warns, with the growing demand for seasoned soldiers from private security contractors, "there is an increasing likelihood that the best segments of the military will vote with their feet, leaving the armed services to the control of less capable actors and leaving the country as a whole with a less effective military."
Could the military's new embrace of stability operations create such a condition and hollow out the Army? Soldiers could enlist just to gain the experience needed to join the better-paying private armies. And the Army would then lose its necessary ethic of self-sacrifice, so crucial to defending the country.
Private Armies, Private Wars
An emphasis on stability operations that perhaps makes the U.S. military more reliant on a private military sector could lead to situations where the lines between the public Army and the military-industrial complex collapse in the future. The close relationship, academics suggest, could allow for slippage in what contractors' duties should and should not be in a war zone. Already calling the private sector a "fifth force-provider" -- to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines -- the Defense Science Board recommended in 2005 that the Pentagon design "a new institution to effectively use the private sector in service of stability operations." Such an institution seems like a great idea on the face of it. Avant says that private security contractors do offer a "surge" force for logistical operations and, potentially, against insurgencies "without the political and bureaucratic lead time required for mobilizing (or demobilizing) military forces."
But if Wrona's prediction that the growth of private security contractors could harm the military proves true, then better-trained contractors might take on "inherently governmental" military actions ordinarily executed by U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon's instructional directive on contractors, "Guidance for Determining Workforce Mix," based on the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998, in fact details the roles that contractors are and are not cleared to fill on the battlefield. They are not cleared for offensive engagements, or to work with the most-sophisticated weapons such as F-22 Raptors. But as the country learned when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued directives on detainee interrogations, such guidelines can be rewritten, or forgotten, in favor of new strategic demands.
This has already happened. As reported by the Center for Public Integrity, it was MPRI that was hired to help rewrite the January 2003 edition of Army Field Manual section 100-21, titled "Contractors on the Battlefield." The rewrite left out a 2000 policy declaring that intelligence work was "inherently governmental" and forbidden to contractors. Despite Assistant Secretary of the Army Patrick Henry's prior order that the policy, which also applied to interrogating prisoners, be reinserted, it somehow never was. MPRI, which has written Army manuals since 1997, says it was not the company's decision. In April 2004, the scandal over the Abu Ghraib prison torture broke, devastating U.S. prestige internationally. Although soldiers from the 320th Military Police Battalion have faced courts-martial proceedings, none of the contractors from CACI or Titan Corp. (now also part of L-3) who led the interrogations at Abu Ghraib were prosecuted.
Another problem, Avant says, is that contractor missions "accrue mainly to the executive branch," and although this "new tool" allows for flexibility, contractors are subject to little, if any, government oversight. She writes in The Market for Force that the licensing process for private security contractors, which is run by the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls, is opaque and that Congress is notified of contracts only if one exceeds $50 million. And, she says, there is "no formal process" to ensure that contractors delivered as promised.
As the nation grows accustomed to seeing contractors working, and even fighting, in the blurry asymmetrical wars of the future, how long will it be before a president decides to "go off the books" and hire a small private army to fight a war. It wouldn't be hard to do.
"The big risk is not what the companies are going to do in and of themselves," Avant said. "The big risks are what the consumers are going to ask them to do."