I thwarted an assassination attempt on President - ex-mercenary

Mercenaries have always been there, where’s the bloodshed going on. The times when whole armies of mercenary troops, or even personal regiments were bought and sold seemed to be long gone. But now, they are called Private Military Companies, and their popularity among the governments rises, with the US leading the trend of shopping at the market of force. Are we witnessing the end of the age of national armies? And why mercenaries are in such high demand these days? We put these questions to Professor Sean McFate, who once was a private military contractor himself.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Professor Sean McFate, former private military contractor, now author, thank you for joining us in our show. Now, with the rise of mercenaries, private armies, contractors - are we heading towards a global market of conflict, or does it exist already?

Sean McFate: It’s been existing now for about 10 years, perhaps longer, but we’re definitely on the trajectory of having a more open and free market for force around the world after Iraq and Afghanistan.

SS: How so?

SMF: Well, the private military industry has always existed, but for the last couple of decades it’s mostly been underground with lone, sort of, mercenaries in Africa, in the wars of decolonization, but in 99s we started seeing a rise of it, with companies like “Executive Outcomes” in South Africa which was a truly mercenary corporation, and that the U.S. government hired a couple of companies in the Balkans, likeMPRI, in 1999s. But it wasn’t until Iraq and Afghanistan that the U.S. government really started to invest heavily in the private military industry, and now that the U.S. is winding down in Afghanistan, the question is - where will this multi-billion dollar industry go? They’re not going to sort of fold-up shop and go bankrupt as some policy makers in Washington hope; they’re going to look for future clients, and those clients could be anybody.

SS: We’ll take about it in detail, a little bit later on, but I want to talk about you - let’s take a look back. How did you become a private contractor? Was it for the money or for a thrill and hunger for war?

SMF: I started off as a U.S. army paratrooper, I was an officer and a paratrooper in 82nd AirborneDivision, and like many in the private military industry I got my start in the U.S. military, many serve other national armies or Marines, and then after that, I switched over, if you will, to the industry side. I worked for a company called DynCorp - it’s one of the largest private security companies in the world, and most of my work actually was in Africa. I was actually not in the Middle East. I did it out of curiosity - I mean, the money is a little better, but it’s not as good as some media reports have made it out to be over the years. The true interesting thing about the industry is that you get to be innovative, in ways that you cannot in the bureaucracies of large militaries. It also was curious to me how this industry operates. It’s a lot more pervasive around the world than most people think, they think it’s just Iraq, they think it’s just Afghanistan, it’s everywhere, this industry.

SS: But what was your most dangerous assignment?

SMF: My most dangerous assignment...again, I was in Africa. There was small country called Burundi, in Central Africa, it is next to Rwanda and many of your viewers will recall 1994, there was a huge Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Rwanda, but actually it wasn’t just Rwanda, it was just the entire region, including Burundi. In 2004 U.S. government intelligence believed that a violent extremist Hutu group hiding in the eastern Congo was going to try to assassinate the President of Burundi. They believed, the rebel group, as did the U.S. government that if the Burundian president was assassinated, it could re-trigger the genocide of 1994, in sort of reprisal killings, Hutus would take revenge on Tutsis and Tutsis will then take further revenge on Hutus, and it will spiral into a full-scale genocide. There have been precedents for this in the past. The U.S. government hired DynCorp international, the company I worked for to prevent this, and I was the person who led this program and we successfully did.

SS: Alright, so that mission in Burundi, besides the goal you were assigned - you had to keep your involvement, meaning U.S. involvement, a secret - how did you manage to do that?

SMF: One of the strange things about this industry is that offers what they call “plausible deniability”. That means, if a mission is too dangerous or too risky politically, it sometimes easier for the U.S. government or for clients more generally, to hire company to do it than, say, send in U.S. army people to do it. If the U.S. army soldiers get captured or killed in places like Africa or Burundi, that can cause a great political upheaval, a lot of press attention. But if contractors get killed, people seem to care less. So, by sending in a company to do this, if things get horribly wrong, the government in some ways is insulated from political blow-back.

SS: Obviously, you were a soldier at DynCorp, you had to follow orders no matter what. Did you ever think about right and wrong, did you ever have to weigh your orders against your moral compass? What would happen if you moral compass told you “No”?

SMF: Interestingly enough, you actually have more exercise for your moral compass in the private sector than you do in the public sector. So,if you’re a public sector soldier, if you are in the U.S. army or another country’s army, and you’re given orders - you have to do it. But if you work in a company, you can just say - no way, I am not leaving, sue me. And you can do that. You actually have more control over you assignments and you destiny in some ways as a soldier, working for PMC, than you do working for the U.S. military - which is very appealing to some soldiers who have done several tours, for example, in Iraq, back to back and their family life is a disaster and they don’t know what to do. So, you know, a lot of them actually leave the U.S. army to go to the private sector for some more control over their life.

SS: Now that you bring up Iraq, there were more contractors in Iraq, employed by the U.S., than there were U.S. soldiers. Have the PMC become indispensable to waging a war?

SMF: That’s a great question, Sophie. The answer is - yes, they have. I mean, in WWII, the U.S. hired about 10% of its workforce overseas, 10% of people in combat zones were contractors. In Vietnam, there was like 20%, in Iraq - it was 50%. So 1 to 1 ratio of contractors to soldiers. In Afghanistan, there was 70%, and the question now is, if the U.S. fights wars… in a generation from now, there will be 80%, 90% - will the U.S. be fighting its wars mostly using contractor labor? The trends indicate “yes”. Either way, we’ve discovered that contractors have proven indispensable for stability operation like Iraq, Afghanistan. Contractors are also very good at raising security forces. So, for example, if the U.S. wanted to help professionalise Iraqi security forces to fight ISIS - that’s a job contractors would do, and that’s a job that… you know, you can put contractors on the ground and not have to report them as “boots on the ground”, which is publicly important to the U.S. of America, for politicians, they don’t want to report too many boots on the ground in Iraq, but if you have contractors, they don’t seem to count. Also, if contractors get killed, nobody seems to care much about that either. They care a lot of if U.S. marines come home in body bags, but nobody’s keeping count of contractor deaths. So, yes, I think, the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on that industry.

SS: Except of the political implications that you’ve just cited, the former CEO of Blackwater, Erik Prince, told me mercenaries are more effective than the U.S. army. Are they, in your opinion? And also, if they are, what’s wrong with using them?

SMF: Well, in some ways, there are more effective. They are certainly cheaper to use. If you have a well-trained a relatively good disciplined private military company, it can leverage innovation in the marketplace, it can lever to lot of private sector good, if you will, to get a job done more cheaply, and using this industry is cheaper than using the U.S. army, there’s no question about that, both in the short-term and also in long-term, because, in the long-term, if you’re done with U.S. army unit, it comes home, you’re still paying salaries, etc; you just end the contract with PMC, you don’t pay anything. But there are long-term risks for it too. Historically, unpaid or unsupervised PMC or mercenaries tended to become predatory. They become bandits, they create conflict, arguably, they elongate conflicts profit. I mean, this is profit motive meets warfare. So there are a lot of long-term risks.

SS: Can you give me an example of where mercenaries, actually, in order to create demand for themselves, can start a conflict or drag on a conflict - can you give an example of that?

SMF: So, less so in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the U.S. government is still there, the Consumer-in-Chief if you will, they pay all the bills; but we’ve seen examples off of the coast of Somalia. So, Somalia is a free market for force, there are mercenaries and privateers, and privateers are basically mercenaries on the seaways, that were hired to counter pirates in Somalia. And one company called “SomCan”which means “Somalia-Canada”, a somalia-canadian counter piracy company, worked for one of the factions in Somalia, and when it had a payment dispute, it became a pirate itself. They started taking down fishing vessels off the coast of Somalia. It is an example out-of-work mercenaries, in this case privateers, became pirates, became the enemy.

SS: So, I want to talk a bit about the reluctance of using PMC services, even though you say that in the long run it’s cheaper and more effective. For instance, Executive Outcomes, a mercenary company from Africa, they offered their help to the UN in stopping Rwandan genocide, and they were rebuffed. They were cheaper, they were effective, and willing to act - so what’s wrong with the scenario like that? Why does the UN refuse to work with mercenaries?

SMF: That’s a great question, and the topic you’re talking about is in 1994, again, at the Rwandan genocide; Mercenary company called “Executive Outcomes” came to the UN and offered to put a halt to the genocide, long enough so that a larger UN peacekeeping mission can get on the ground, which takes usually 6 months to generate, and the UN famously said “No”, it said the world is not ready for privatising peacekeeping. Of course, the world wasn’t ready to 800,000 people to be dead either, but one of the concerns is, with markets of force, will these companies create war for profit? Again, there’s a lot of historical precedent from middle ages to suggest “yes”. When you have an industry, invested in conflict, going to the most conflict-prone places on planet, like Africa, like the Middle East, like South Asia, you’ll have more war, and you’ll have less governance on force. States are losing the monopoly on force, and now its becoming commoditised, conflict is becoming commoditized; In such a world, we’ll have the super-rich that will become superpowers, big corporations will become superpowers, anybody who can afford the means to war and to wage them will become superpowers.

SS: Right, I get what you’re saying, but what I am asking is that, you know, locally, if the UN is helpless, why can it just hire a PMC and solve the problem?

SMF: I think UN should consider it, actually. I think the UN can be in a position that the U.S. was several years ago, where it can become sort-of “consumer-in-chief”. Certainly, its peacekeeping missions are thinning, and are in need of peacekeepers and I think they should consider a way to use this industry to augment peacekeeping missions, but they should do it under strict regulation, they should create a scheme for vetting who the private contractors are, for the type of training that they have to receive, for having accountability and transparency, to do all those regulatory things that the U.S. and others had not done in the last 10 years. The UN is in a good position to do that, and if they could do that, they could also incentivise best practices within this industry; I think the industry is like fire - it can be a force of good, but it can also be a force of great destruction.

SS: But, not only the UN, with the situation we’re seeing today in Iraq and Syria, wouldn’t it make sense to hire the PMC to combat Islamic State? Why doesn’t the international community invest in that?

SMF: Well, that’s another great question. I think the fear is of control. You can take PMC and they are able to do some combat on the ground in Iraq and Syria, whereas the international community, like the U.S. is just giving air-support. We don’t really have troops on the ground, could contractors make up troops on the ground, because you need land forces to control territory. You can’t control territory from air, and if you want to defeat ISIS you have to have people on the ground, so it is possible, but the problem is this: who are the PMC? We don’t really know, and what happens after that contract is done? Are they going to stay in Iraq? Will they set up shop for themselves? Again, looking back to history, a lot of mercenaries sort of took over land and then installed themselves as kings, in Italy. So, the bigger question is what happens after ISIS is defeated, what will the contractors do? Will they stay there, will go into business for themselves… who knows?

SS: So, basically you are saying nation-states are losing their monopoly on use of force. So, who pays these contractors, the ones that are employed? Is it always the government, or could a rich person hire them, for instance?

SMF: Right now, it could be anybody. Rich people can hire them, in fact, in 2008, an actressMia Farrowfrom Hollywood considered hiring Blackwater to stop the genocide in Darfur that was going on. Now, Blackwater andMia Farrowdecided not to go through with that, but they could have. The question is, will that happen again in the future, and I think - absolutely, there’s no reason to assume it won’t happen. Oil companies are starting to use industry, humanitarian organisations, working in dangerous places are hiring this industry… This industry, right now, is operating mostly in the defensive capacity, defending people, defending property, but a lot of the industry has the capability to do offensive combat, using drones, they can make kamikaze drones, they get private air forces, if you will - they think the future of warfare will be increasingly privatised, and there’s no reason to assume that state will own that.

SS: All the drones and military warfare that you’re talking about - where are they getting all these supplies, because I was thinking, it is usually the state who supplies the company with the military equipment.

SMF: No, it’s actually very easy. Small arms and light weapons, there’s an international market, both black and non-black market for this. If you go to conflict zones, where these companies are going to be drawn to, there’s obviously a large black market of small arms sloshing around. When I was in Africa, you could buy an AK-47 in most bazaars, for $20-30. Drones are commercially available, you can order them on Amazon, and you can outfit them yourself. We’re not talking about these huge U.S. air force drones, we’re talking about smaller drones, and you could, you know, make them into a kamikaze drones. It wouldn’t take a genius to arm them with something and make them into flying bombs.

SS: Telll me something - could we see a conflict between private corporations, just going back to what you were saying earlier, like, for instance, if they hired PMC’s not for protection but to a battle for a piece of land, for instance. Microsoft vs Apple ground war? Is that possible?

SMF: Well, I don’t know if Microsoft and Apple will engage in that. I think, certainly, in the extractive industry - it’s a possibility, and it’s not just between companies. Extractive industry is, like, oil, gas, timber - they don’t have a choice as to where their asset is. They have to go, you know, if you’re mining you have to go where the gold, the ore is; and there may be other companies out there, that could be governments and there could be rebel groups to contend there as well. So, you can imagine conflict between several actors, companies, weak governments, rebel groups, separatist groups, etc, and they could all hire PMC, because once you hire one, there’s always a possibility of escalation, where the other sides then must get into a sort of mercenary arms race. So, we might be seeing a lot of PMC coming out of Afghanistan in a year, looking for marketplace, and that might be something that will attract them, very much.

SS: From talking to you, I got the sense that accountability is the most pressing issue surrounding the PMC industry. So, while those in the army operate by army rules, the PMC’s don’t have to follow those rules, right?

SMF: That’s right.

SS: How do you make sure they’re accountable for their actions? Is there any way to make them accountable for their actions and be sure that they will be accountable for their actions?

SMF: That’s a great question, Sophie, and after 10 years or more of using this industry, the U.S. has not created any sort of regulatory framework with any sort of enforcement, nor has international community, and the reason is simple: if you regulate this industry too much, it will simply move offshore, beyond the realm of regulations, just like companies move offshore for tax havens. Really, strong regulation is not the answer, even if you have a regulatory framework, it’s really hard to enforce it. I mean, who’s going to enforce it? Is the UN going to go off and then arrest a thousand private military contractors in the middle of Congo? It will be very difficult to do. I think the only way you can do it is by shaping the market. PMC respond to logic of the marketplace, so if you make good behaviour profitable and bad behaviour unprofitable, that’s, though not satisfying, may be the best we can do.

SS: So tell me something, is there a danger of one company becoming and uber-player on the market, for instance there’s this british G4S security firm, and it’s second biggest private employer in the world, second only to Walmart. What could happen if the private war market becomes monopolised?

SMF: That’s a good question too. We’re talking about a market for force, so market analysis matters. Now, in some ways, you’ll have what they call “balancing” going on, so big companies, other companies who are smaller, will sort of compete against that big company to keep it down, just a way great powers compete each other to keep one down. So, there’s that, but if a company becomes so powerful or so big that it becomes dominant - that would be a huge political player, a new type of superpower that we haven’t seen in a very long time, sort of like the British East India company. That would be problematic for a global security.

SS: Here’s another side to it: PMCs are corporations, and if their reputation is tarnished by working for bad guys or acting out while on a mission - that will hurt business, won’t it? So, won’t the market itself provide best practices?

SMF: It will. So, again, this industry responds to market forces, the logic of the marketplace, so if we could make good, best practices profitable, and bad practices not profitable, then we could shape the industry. I think the UN should it decide to use private peacekeepers, has the power to do it in consistent manner. Certainly, Blackwater, after it killed 17 Iraqis in 2007 in Baghdad - it was sort of bounced out of marketplace. So, absolutely, some market logic can be used as a tool of accountability to some extent within this industry.

SS: Thank you very much for this interesting insight, Sean. We were talking to professor Sean McFate, former private military contractor, now author, talking about modern mercenaries and why the business of private warfare is growing larger. That’s it for this edition of Sophie &Co, I will see you next time.