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A new twist on a long military tradition

THE US MILITARY has a long tradition of utilizing the private sector for military support. Even George Washington's army included private contractors who endured many of the same hardships and risks as the soldiers they served.

Today's military is more effective than ever, but more than two centuries after Washington, it still uses the private sector to support its operations with training, technical expertise, and logistical support. Other countries recognize the cost savings and capabilities benefits of outsourcing their military support requirements and are following the American example. The military services industry is evolving as well, now offering services in nontraditional areas such as enhancing United Nations peacekeeping, where the potential humanitarian benefits are astonishing.

The occupation efforts in Iraq have become a display case for outsourced military services. In general, the contractors fall into three categories:

Support companies providing services such as logistics, supply, unexploded weapons disposal, or transportation. The vast majority of military service contracts fall into this category. Kellogg Brown & Root is the largest such company in Iraq, supporting the US military with everything from mail delivery to construction services.

Security companies providing defensive protection, such as bodyguards or security for industrial sites. Usually these companies rely on a handful of ex-military personnel from Western armies to train a much larger number of locals. In Iraq, for example, Erinys is using British and South Africans to train some 6,500 Iraqis to protect the oil pipeline running from Iraq to Turkey - a frequent guerrilla target.

Strategic service companies providing military training or direct military services for governments or multinational organizations. Two experienced companies, MPRI and Vinnell, are training the new Iraqi army, both in martial skill and in the proper role of the military in a democratic society.

These companies select their employees largely from the ample ranks of retired military personnel who bring with them useful knowledge and a sturdy willingness to endure risk. The employees are well aware of what they are getting into: Attacks in Iraq have killed several contractors alongside the US soldiers they have been supporting.

Some analysts predicted that this level of insecurity would cause the civilian companies to break their contracts and flee, leaving the military exposed without critical support services. But there has been no mass exodus of companies. More to the point: No one has published a single verifiable instance of a military service company missing or abandoning a contract. In conversations, Kellogg Brown & Root employees admitted that the threat level has indeed limited movement and thus the company's flexibility in addressing the US military's evolving needs. But despite the fact that two of their employees have been killed while carrying out their duties, they emphasize that Kellogg Brown & Root is ``in it for the long haul.''

More recently, we are seeing private security companies assuming many hazardous guard duties previously done by US military personnel. Museums do not need to be guarded by Abrams tanks when an Iraqi security guard working for a contractor can do the same job for less than one-50th of what it costs to maintain an American soldier. Hiring local guards gives Iraqis a stake in a successful future for their country. They use their pay to support their families and stimulate the economy. Perhaps most significantly, every guard means one less potential guerrilla.

But while Iraq may dominate the international pages of America's media, the greatest promise from private military services is in ending wars that rarely make the news.

Too often, the UN is blamed for failed peacekeeping operations, especially in Africa. This is unfair; the blame belongs at our own feet. Western militaries are the best trained and best equipped in the world, yet their governments are loath to contribute them to international peace operations.

The UN is forced to rely on soldiers from the world's poorest countries, who have far less training or equipment and lack critical military capabilities. As a result, UN peacekeepers in these ``Westernless'' operations have often been tragically ineffective and overwhelmed in places like Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Without credible force, painstakingly crafted peace agreements fall apart in the face of recalcitrant warlords who profit from continued chaos.

Private military companies bring their valuable capabilities - helicopter services, aerial surveillance, logistics support - along with a willingness to sustain UN operations the West has abandoned. In some cases these services even involve armed peacekeepers, but always under legitimate international mandates and always under the same rules of engagement as normal peacekeepers.

With more than 3 million civilian deaths in Congo's conflict alone, disparaging this willing resource without offering an alternative is positively ruthless. The UN is finding military service companies to be as indispensable as George Washington did more than two centuries ago.

Doug Brooks is president of the International Peace Operations Association, a nonprofit organization of private companies seeking to improve international peacekeeping efforts through greater privatization. He is a specialist on African security issues.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has published an 11-part series titled "Making a Killing: The Business of War," a comprehensive study that is featured on this website.
The military service provider companies that belong to the International Peace Operations Association work in international peacekeeping operations around the world. The companies do everything from mine clearance to armed logistics to emergency humanitarian services to actual armed peacekeeping.
An investigation written by Rachel Van Dongen and first published in The Christian Science Monitor shows that the US military is employing private armies to fight a drug war in Colombia.

book group

"Fortune's Warriors: Private Armies and the New World Order"
By James R. Davis
A former mercenary looks at the face of war from West Africa to the former Yugoslavia. Professional soldiers of fortune have always existed -- but now they're on the brink of playing a new role in world affairs.

By James Hooper
Executive Outcomes is the most successful private army of modern times. In Angola, Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea, it stepped in when the UN failed to act. The author follows this mercenary army, wondering whether it was more interested in protecting Sierra Leone's diamond mines than the people caught up in a savage guerrilla war.

"Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat"
By Wesley K. Clark
The former US Army general and head of NATO forces in the 1999 Kosovo operations, Democratic presidential candidate Clark explains that overwhelming force cannot ignore the political and social ramifications of recent American deployments.

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