Private military companies protecting American diplomats, aid workers and local officials in Iraq and Afghanistan are making a pitch to take over U.N. peacekeeping missions in Darfur and other global hot spots where the United Nations is unable to stop the killing.
Companies such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy, DynCorp and Halliburton have mushroomed in size and number since the 2003 Iraq invasion, serving an increasing need to protect people and projects from terrorist attacks.
With a limited number of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq, private companies fill a void with up to 100,000 employees, far more than all non-U.S. coalition troops combined. They do everything from serving meals on U.S. bases to protecting diplomats and visiting generals who venture outside the protected Green Zone in downtown Baghdad.
Some companies are looking beyond Iraq and seeking a greater role in peacekeeping, and the largely ineffective deployment of a 7,000-member African Union (AU) force in the Darfur region of western Sudan provides an opportunity.
Blackwater says it could get its people and equipment in Darfur in three weeks, provided U.N. members could agree on a plan. In comparison, it takes an average of six months for a U.N. peacekeeping team to deploy.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept, said Robert Young Pelton, author of the just-released book “License to Kill,” which provides an inside look at a secretive world of private military contracting.
Few people even know about the industry, which is said to bid on $30 billion to $100 billion in annual contracts. One reason is that well-paid private contractors in Iraq and elsewhere typically sign agreements that include fines of up to $250,000 for speaking with reporters.
Shortly after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Darfur in 2004, Blackwater put together a proposal to go in there and stop the two sides from killing each other, Mr. Pelton said.
“The problem is, if you look at the presentation, it includes not only men with guns. They’re offering helicopter gunships, a fighter bomber that has the capacity to drop cluster bombs and [satellite-guided weapons], armored vehicles. You say: ‘Wait a minute? That’s a lot of offensive force. What does that have to do with peacekeeping?’”
Almost everyone agrees that the U.N. peacekeeping system is broken, a view underscored by the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions driven into squalid refugee camps.
The private sector would not perform offensive operations, said Chris Taylor, Blackwater’s vice president for strategic initiatives. But it could provide badly needed backup for the AU force in an area of Sudan roughly the size of France.
“If the AU comes in and performs an intervention in one area, we can follow behind them and relieve them so they can continue elsewhere. We can provide the defensive security and provide a defensive perimeter for the humanitarian organizations to follow. The NGOs can start doing what they do best within a secure environment, and that’s what’s missing in Darfur,” Mr. Taylor said.
“We’re having discussions with all the principals, the policy-makers, but as you can imagine, the obstacles to doing this are far more political than operational,” he said.
Outside the law
On an ill-defined battlefield, such as in a guerrilla-led insurgency, contractors can quickly become soldiers.
Mr. Pelton’s book describes one such battle between a handful of Blackwater contractors and the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.
In spring 2004, the militia attacked Camp Golf, then the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
Fighting lasted all day and night, with Blackwater contractors doing most of the fighting and Blackwater helicopters doing all the resupply and medical evacuations, Mr. Pelton writes.
“The military seemed to fear what was happening — Blackwater Security versus the Mahdi Army while the U.S. military stood by watching — essentially an American mercenary militia battling an Iraqi mercenary militia.”
U.N. peacekeeping operations make limited use of private companies to move troops and supplies; provide logistical support, medical personnel, portable outhouses; and perform other tasks.
Air transport for the 18 U.N. peacekeeping missions is done by private companies. Guards at many U.N. facilities are supplied by companies that bid for contracts. In Liberia, an entire police force was trained by one of the biggest military contractors, DynCorp, which was hired by the United States as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.
But it is situations like the battle in Najaf that worry the United Nations.
“The idea of putting in [peacekeeping] forces that would have the ability to use all necessary means, up to and including the use of lethal force to address a problem, is one that we are not comfortable with,” said an official with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of the 2003 book “Corporate Warriors,” views the notion of privatized U.N. peacekeeping with skepticism.
“It would be a great idea if Martians came and acted in Darfur, too,” Mr. Singer said. “It’s not on the table except in the minds of the companies, or to be kind of honest, journalists looking for an interesting story.”
Like Mr. Pelton, Mr. Singer raises the issue of accountability.
“Current international law has been found inapplicable to the actions of the industry, as the firms fall outside of the outdated legal conventions that deal only with individual mercenaries,” he wrote in Brookings’ Policy Review.
Blackwater’s Mr. Taylor disagrees.
“Our professionals are just as accountable to the Geneva and Hague conventions as anybody else,” he said, before listing at least a dozen overlapping U.S. laws that would apply to Blackwater employees.
In his book, Mr. Pelton weighs in on the side of Mr. Singer: “As of the spring of 2006, there has not been a single contractor charged for any crime that occurred in Iraq, though hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed for offenses ranging from minor violations of military code to murder.”
Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group representing 27 private companies, offers another take on a role for a private peacekeeping army in Darfur.
The Sudanese government refuses to accept U.N. peacekeepers because it fears a repeat of what happened in Kosovo, which gained de facto independence from Serbia through a U.N. intervention, Mr. Brooks said.
“What about a private company working under Sudanese law?” he asked.
“You’d have to have some safeguards, but in essence, you would get effective security. It would be neutral, so it would protect against both the rebels and the [government-backed] Janjaweed militia. It would pay taxes to the Sudanese government.
“You’d have to have safeguards to make sure the guys aren’t thrown into some kangaroo court for every alleged offense. But it’s something that they might be willing to look at.”
Mr. Brooks said his organization is attempting to broach the subject with the Sudanese government.
“We’ve had some informal contacts through go-betweens to see what they think about it and haven’t heard back,” he said. “But who knows?”