March 31, four retired Special Operations forces employed by the private
security firm Blackwater Security Consulting were ambushed, killed, and
their bodies mutilated in Fallujah. According to the San Francisco
Chronicle, an estimated 15,000 "private security agents" are currently
operating in Iraq.
With the U.S. casualty toll ticking ever upward, and its troops stretched thin on the ground, the Bush administration is looking to mercenaries to help control Iraq. These soldiers-for-hire are veterans of some of the most repressive military forces in the world, including that of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and South Africa's apartheid regime.
In February, Blackwater USA, a North Carolina-based Pentagon contractor, began recruiting "former commandos, other soldiers and seamen" from Chile, offering them up to $4,000 a month "to guard oil wells against attack by insurgents," the Guardian reported. The company "flew a first group of about 60 former commandos, many of who had trained under the military government of Augusto Pinochet, from Santiago to a... [large] training camp in North Carolina," wrote Jonathan Franklin, reporting from Santiago, Chile.
These recruits will eventually wind up in Iraq, where they will spend six months to a year: "We scour the ends of the earth to find professionals -- the Chilean commandos are very, very professional and they fit within the Blackwater system," Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater USA, told the Guardian.
Michelle Bachelet, Chile's defense minister, told Franklin that she was concerned about "whether paramilitary training by Blackwater violated Chilean laws on the use of weapons by private citizens," and she "ordered an investigation." Bachelet also was troubled by stories that "people on active duty were involved." According to Franklin, "Many soldiers are said to be leaving the army to join the private companies."
While Blackwater USA is not nearly as well known as Halliburton or Bechtel -- two mega-corporations making a killing off the reconstruction of Iraq -- it nevertheless is doing quite well financially, Gary Jackson said. "We have grown 300% over each of the past three years and we are small compared to the big ones. We have a very small niche market, we work towards putting out the cream of the crop, the best."
The company was founded in 1998, and at the time, it was like playing "roulette, [it was] a crapshoot," Jackson, the former Navy seal, told Mother Jones reporter Barry Yeoman.
"Their investment paid off," Yeoman wrote. "Since the attacks of September 11, the company has seen its business boom -- enough to warrant a major expansion of its training facility this year. 'To contemplate outsourcing tactical, strategic, firearms-type training -- high-risk training -- is thinking outside the box,' Jackson said. 'Is this happening? Yes, this is happening.'"
Blackwater USA specializes in firearm, tactics and security training and is comprised of five companies; Blackwater Training Center, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Security Consulting, Blackwater Canine, and Blackwater Air (AWS), and has been doing business with the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Transportation, in addition to local and state entities from around the country, multi-national corporations, and countries from all over the globe.
According to an April 2003 PRWeb press release, "Blackwater's 5,200 square acre facility located in Moyock, NC... is the largest privately-owned firearms training facility in the nation and contains state of the art firearms ranges and training apparatus." Yeoman described the facilities as "a remote tactical training camp, [located] in a swamp 25 miles from the world's largest naval base."
In October 2003, the company inked an estimated $35.7 million contract "to train more than 10,000 sailors from Virginia, Texas, and California each year in 'force protection,'" Yeoman reported.
While there are always a number of high-profile events on Blackwater's schedule, this year's World SWAT Challenge & Conference -- scheduled for mid-May -- is being touted as "The One SWAT Event You Can't Afford to Miss." The conference, which will be held at the company's training facility in Moyock, is being organized by law enforcement "special ops experts who have been there themselves."
In addition to "special ops" conferences and weapons trainings, for the stay-at-home warrior the company offers a full array of gear including tee-shirts, ball caps, gym shorts, mugs, and license plates with the Blackwater logo.
According to the Web blog Spark, "In recent years, the presence of military contractors in U.S. wars and military operations has increased significantly. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, one in every 50 people on the battlefield was an American mercenary, fighting under a contract. In Bosnia in 1996, that ratio was one in 10."
Currently there are thousands of soldiers under contract with private companies serving in Iraq. "Squads of Bosnians, Filipinos and Americans with special forces experience have been hired for tasks ranging from airport security to protecting Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority," The Guardian's Franklin reported.
Chile isn't the only country from which private companies have recruited mercenaries for Iraq. According to the South Africa newspaper, The Cape Times, "More than 1,500 South Africans are believed to be in Iraq under contract to various private military companies." The United Nations recently reported that South Africa "is already among the top three suppliers of personnel for private military companies, along with the UK and the US."
The Cape Times' Beauregard Tromp writes that "The Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, passed in July 1998, prohibits South African citizens from direct participation as a combatant in armed conflict for private gain. Such engagement includes recruitment, training, or financing and applies to South Africans acting outside the country as well."
Institute for Security Studies military analyst Henri Boshoff told Tromp that it appeared most of the South Africans in Iraq were former members of the South African Defense Force and South African Police. "The guys over there are walking a thin line, close to contravening the Foreign Military Assistance Act," he added.
According to the Web site of the South African-based Democratic Alliance, the private companies appear to be working in Iraq "in contravention of South African law." South African law states that all security companies working outside the country must register with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), headed by Minister of Education Kader Asmal. "So far," according to Tromp, "two companies, Meteoric Tactical Solutions and Grand Lake Trading 46 (Pty) Ltd, have submitted applications to operate in Iraq."
Meteoric Tactical Solutions "is providing protection and is also training new Iraqi police and security units," while another company, Erinys, a joint South African-British company which has failed to register with the government, "has received a multimillion-dollar contract to protect Iraq's oil industry," the Cape Times reported. Earlier this year, an Erinys employee was killed when a car bomb exploded at a hotel where South Africans have been staying.
Raenette Taljaard, a member of the South African Parliament, recently wrote in YaleGlobal Online that this new "booming cottage industry" of private security companies -- which includes companies like Kroll, Armor, Control Risks, Rubicon and Global Risk -- "boast of a whole range of specializations and hail from a range of countries but, together, they provide all the services normally carried out by national military forces, including intelligence, military training, logistics and security.
"In addition to becoming an integral part of the machinery of war, they are emerging as cogs in the infrastructure of peace. US-allied military officials and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan are quickly becoming familiar with the 'brand services' provided by companies.
"But the battlefield is not merely another arena for business, and the profit motive may distort security strategy decisions. The expansion of services performed by civilian entities raises several concerns: the lack of transparency and oversight common to their operations; the performance of companies motivated by profit, not national foreign policy or security interest; and revolving-door-style nepotism and conflicts of interest. All these are concerns that grow ever more urgent as mega-corporation-style military companies diversify even further."
The high salaries and shorter terms of employment that private companies are offering mercenaries could cause the U.S. military and the militaries of other countries to face severe personnel shortages. "If they are going to outsource tasks that were once held by active-duty military and are now using private contractors, those guys [on active duty] are looking and asking, 'Where is the money?'" Gary Jackson told Franklin.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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