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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Whose Security?

Part II

Farah Ghuznavi

Recent experiences in Iraq with the Blackwater security firm scandal have also brought to the forefront concerns about how private security contractors operate elsewhere. Large numbers of US military personnel are expected to arrive in Helmand province, the focal point of British involvement in Afghanistan, under a new effort to promote reconstruction and development there. But British officials have already expressed concerns over the potential influx and its implications. The Taliban has increasingly used suicide attacks and roadside bombings to target western soldiers, and according to one western diplomat, “The worry is that there will be a blast, and some contractors will panic and open fire, as happened with Blackwater in Baghdad. That is the very last thing that Helmand needs at the moment.”

There is already proof of irregularities by such security firms, and the government of Afghan President Karzai - like its counterpart in Iraq - has expressed concerns about the behaviour of private contractors. DynCorp, a US security company in Helmand has generated resentment over its role in the campaign to eradicate opium by destroying the poppy crop, and British commanders feel that although British troops were not involved in these activities, angry Afghans may not distinguish between private contractors and British soldiers!

The Texas-based firm USPI, the largest American government-supported contractor in Afghanistan, has been accused of over-billing the US government by millions of dollars for nonexistent employees and vehicles. USPI's recruiting practices in Afghanistan have also drawn criticism from the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank, which reports that a majority of the men employed by USPI were previously associated with private militias and Afghan warlords “Many have used their authority to engage in criminal activity, including drug trafficking.” But then again, perhaps the local employees were merely taking their cue from their crooked bosses in the US, making it all too evident that some security firms are clearly corrupt as well as inept…

And, as one ex-Royal Marine currently employed in the private sector has acknowledged, there are “some right nutters” involved in the security business. Once such individual operating in Afghanistan was Jack Idema. He claimed to be ex-CIA, but is widely considered to be a compulsive liar. This however did not prevent him from running his own “security company” and setting up an unofficial prison, where people abducted by his gunmen on suspicion of being “terrorists”, were tortured with impunity. While Idema was later jailed for his activities, there is little doubt that many others like him continue to operate, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The US government's role in all of this remains highly problematic. In response to a query by the Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama - where he demanded to know whether the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was aware of the immunity offers for private contractors such as Blackwater and whether she agreed with that policy - the somewhat glib response by her office was that “her attitude has been since the very beginning that we need to determine facts and… those who broke laws or regulations… must be held to account.” Surely if there is immunity to prosecution (a privilege enjoyed by private security firms in Iraq, thanks to the ordinance passed in 2004 by the Coalition Provisional Authority i.e. the Americans), then there is by definition no law to be broken?!

This doublespeak also begs the question of why the State Department is claiming that any lawbreakers “must be held to account” when they have already promised to shield the Blackwater bodyguards' statements to the criminal inquiry that was undertaken into the massacre of civilians that took place in Iraq last September. The inquiry has since been taken over by the Justice Department and the FBI - with the FBI re-interviewing some of the guards on the understanding that any statements they now give may be used for a future prosecution. Unsurprisingly most of the guards are now refusing to co-operate.

The Bush administration has come under fire from its critics for effectively providing partial immunity to the Blackwater bodyguards, with Democrats stating that this amounts to a failure to hold the security firm responsible for the deaths of the 17 Iraqi civilians who lost their lives in the recent orgy of violence. Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the immunity deal as another example of “the amnesty administration”. It is certainly difficult to argue that the current US government has demonstrated anything other than a striking tendency to pardon any of its subordinates or associates for their crimes and misdemeanours including Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Vice-President's right-hand man, who was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, but provided a presidential pardon for his loyalty in keeping his mouth shut about the actions of his superiors!

According to Senator Leahy, “In this administration, accountability goes by the boards… That seems to be a central tenet in the Bush administration that no one from their team should be held accountable, if accountability can be avoided… That goes equally for misconduct and for incompetence… If you get caught, they will get you immunity. If you get convicted, they will commute your sentence”.

Quite apart from the immediate consequences (or lack of them!) for Blackwater, the killings in the Mansour district put the spotlight firmly on other private security firms, whose employees are also immune from prosecution. Shortly after the Mansour incident, two Armenian Christian women were shot dead after their car approached a protected convoy. This incident involved the Australian contractor Unity Resources Group, whose employees were arguably somewhat trigger happy in their handling of the situation. The women's car was riddled with a total of 40 bullets a slight overreaction, perhaps?

According to Unity Resources Group, its guards, who were protecting financial and policy experts working for the US Agency for International Development, had feared a suicide attack and allegedly fired only after issuing several warnings. Such claims provide little solace to the families of the woman taxi driver and her front seat passenger who were killed in the attack.

It is worth remembering that private armies such as those provided by firms like Blackwater and Unity Resources Group have long existed, pre-dating the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Numidian mercenaries who served Ramses II during his sacking of Kadesh in 1294 BC to the rather more recent Thirty Years' War and the American War of Independence (where Britain used Hessian soldiers to fight on its side), external recruits have always provided a complementary service to most traditional armies.

Of course, no-one ever said that such mercenaries were well-behaved! Indeed Machiavelli, in his seminal work “The Prince” described these soldiers of fortune as “dangerous”, stating that “if anyone supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure.”

For the time being, it would seem that private security firms are here to stay. According to Patrick ToyneSewell of Armor Group, “We believe that Iraq as a market will continue to grow for some time due to the outsourcing by the US government in terms of convoy logistics, in terms of guarding, that will continue.” Afghanistan is also likely to provide long-term employment to such private security contractors, for similar reasons. But under the circumstances, the American government and its allies would do well to think carefully about Machiavelli's assertion that those who rely on mercenaries will never stand on solid ground. Perhaps, after all, money can't buy everything…?

All figures and quotes taken from The Independent, UK

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008