Colombo, Peace and Conflict


A recent post by Indi on the correctness of allowing people with foreign interests to hold high military office got me thinking about the whole private military contract business. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading The Road to Hell by Brian Geddes, a British mercenary (or private military contractor as they are now called) in Iraq.Indi’s post basically pointed out that the SL Army commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, and a few others who are US green card holders, cannot be trusted to hold such high positions as their loyalties could possibly be divided.

Regardless of whether Gota & Co are actually foreigners or not, I tend to think that nationality is beside the point when it comes to fighting a war — or cleaning up after it for that matter. The soldier of fortune or mercenary warrior has had a long career — one that parallels the history of the citizen soldier, both in length and quality. Mercenaries have been employed as far back in time as the 13th Century BC, when Pharaoh Rameses II employed 11,000 mercenaries. In the 3rd Century BC, Hannibal of Carthage used Spanish and French mercenaries in his conquest of Italy, and Roman Caesars hired Visigoths to serve as the Praetorian Guard. More recently, the British used Hessian mercenaries against George Washington in his War of Independence. Two of the biggest private armies in history were the British and Dutch East India Companies which carried out proxy wars on behalf of the British and Dutch rulers, and were commercially motivated. Other famous mercenary organisations like the French Foreign Legion and the Gurkha regiments have rightfully earned a ferocious reputation as fighting troops.

It is thanks to these mercenaries that citizen soldiers are now paid salaries where before they were expected to serve as part of their duty to their king or lord. Once paid mercenaries entered service alongside these unpaid slaves, it was no longer possible to merely provide food and clothing for the standing army. However, even today, mercenaries are paid somewhat more than citizen soldiers.

Sri Lanka itself has had its own brushes with the commercial military, having been invaded by the Dutch East India Company and its British counterpart. Both these companies, in addition to being mercantile ventures employing large numbers of British and Dutch private citizens, also had Irish, Swiss, and other European mercenaries on its payroll. In more recent times Sri Lanka too has made use of mercenaries in its war against the Tamil separatist terrorists. In the ’80s, British military companies such as Keeni Meeni Services provided training to SL Army special operations units and brought in ex-RAF pilots to fly helicopter missions for the SLAF. In 1987, former fighters from recently disbanded Tamil separatist groups were hired by a Maldivian businessman to invade Male. In the early ’90s, mercenaries –this time from Israel, South Africa, and eastern Europe — were once more active in Sri Lanka, mostly as specialist instructors, but occasionally carrying out combat operations for both the Army and the SLAF.

By now it must be quite clear that the usefulness of mercenary troops has been proven. They are a ready source of qualified (if expensive) fighting troops, instantly available without any of the problems brought on the client state by recruitment, training, etc.

If historically the mercenary army was largely a tool of the state, today’s private military contractor (PMC) is as much an individual asset as a laptop is in comparison to the mainfraims of the ’60s. Specialist teams of mercenaries (or even individuals) are available to commercial companies doing business in hotspots such as Baghdad, Kabul, or Mexico City, as bodyguards, drivers, or surveillance experts. The current estimate of PMC troops in Iraq is 30,000 — the second largest coalition contingent in the country after the US — and the majority of the combat component of these mercenaries have been hired by commercial companies and media organisations to provide security for their employees; either as individuals, or as small section- and platoon-sized units. The non-combat component of the PMCs do jobs that range from truck driving to explosive ordnance disposal to cooking.

Sri Lankan ex-servicemen too are under contract in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them highly trained former special forces with long years of experience in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

So with non-state soldiers of fortune making up the second-largest miltary contingent in the most ferocious war currently being conducted, is it now the logical step to outsource the military? Is this a viable option? Right now, all diplomatic security in Iraq and Afghanistan is provided by PMCs, whereas in the past this role was undertaken by specialist state police, military, or security organisations like the British SAS or the US Secret Service. Most installations and convoys are guarded by PMCs. Specialist private intelligence units guard prisoners and even conduct interrogations. PMCs have their own armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships.

However, even in Iraq — where the mercenary has finally become mainstream — the PMCs remain second-line troops. They don’t conduct conventional offensive operations, and even raids and reconnaissance remain within the realm of traditional state armed forces. By keeping these PMCs out of the frontline, the US and other governments can argue they are not actually mercenaries and therefore not liable under the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 or the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893. Ironically, in spite of the UN protocol on the use of mercenaries, the UN hired the South African PMC Executive Outcomes for non-combat work in Africa. So are PMCs capable of taking on the role of a nation’s defenders? It certainly has been done in the past, but on a far smaller scale.

If we only look as far back as the 20th century, the 1960s saw a rash of wars across the face of central Africa, in which many mercenaries took part. In the Congo, Moise Tshombe declared the mineral-rich province of Katanga independent, using seconded Belgian soldiers and airmen to man his gendarmerie and tiny air force. To protect the Belgians, Tshombe hired white mercenaries who — formed into commandos — then made up his army, all of it paid for by British and European mining companies and backed by the US government. With his foreign private army, Tshombe was able to hold off the Congolese National Army (ANC) and keep Katanga relatively peaceful in comparison to the rest of the Congo, which descended into bloody chaos with the asassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Mercenary commanders like South African “Mad Mike” Hoare, Frenchman Bob Denard, and Belgian “Black Jack” Schramme shot to fame, building themselves reputations as soldiers of fortune that stood them in good stead in later wars. Though Tshombe’s private army was eventually defeated by UN forces who intervened and put an end to the rebellion, it was the first time in modern history that a private army manned by foreigners and financed by mercantile firms was able to undertake the entire national defences of a nation. Tshombe was so impressed by the effectivity of his Les affreux that when he was later appointed prime minister of the Congo, he brought them back to put down the Simba rebellion, while Cuban mercenaries (provided by the CIA) flew air strikes in support.

In the Sierra Leone Civil War 1991-2002, the state hired several private military companies to provide advisors and instructors to the local forces. The first of these was Gurkha Security Guards (GSG) which pulled out in 1995 after one of its officers, American Robert MacKenzie, was killed in action, and was replaced by Executive Outcomes, which was in turn replaced by the British PMC Sandline. Towards the end of the civil war, these PMCs were conducting all military operations against the RUF rebels and were supported by a tiny air force of Mi-24 Hind gunships flown by South African crews. In effect, these PMCs were the armed forces of Sierra Leone.

However, it is a big leap from defending Katanga or Sierra Leone against a disorganised tribal enemy to taking over the national defence of a country such as Sri Lanka, where the Army alone is fast approaching the 200,000 mark (almost seven times the size of the PMC manpower in Iraq). Is it practical to expect that a mercantile corporation could take over defence duties that include manning a deep water navy and keeping the air force airborne? Currently, this seems beyond comprehension in a country even as small as Sri Lanka. To think that this could be done in the USA is fantasy.

If we lay the idea of a privatised armed forces aside, what would be the possible link between that end of the spectrum and the PMCs’ present role in Iraq? I think that it’s feasible for a nation like the US to outsource its foreign military commitments — at least the Army role anyway. Kellog, Brown & Root, once a PMC, has expanded its role so widely that it is now the engineering and construction arm of the Halliburton Group, and is no longer really a PMC, the latter role being taken over by Blackwater when it was bought by KBR. So it’s not inconceivable for such a corporation to expand its role and its staff even further and take over all US military operations in Iraq. A second such ’super-PMC’ could take over Afghanistan, and so on. In this way, the US military could restrict itself to just its traditional USAF and USN roles, which would still support PMC ground operations. As with current PMC operations, the US government would ask for tenders, set budgets and targets, and expect the PMCs to deliver within mandated timelines.

But what about loyalty, I hear you say. Can these companies be trusted to carry out the policies of the client state? Media reports on PMCs in Iraq don’t paint them in a favourable light, with many being portrayed as out of control renegades. While this element certainly is there (both in PMCs and in the military), the main reason the situation occurs is the US’ unwillingness to accept responsibility for the PMCs. Therefore they are not scrutinised as closely as the US military. In contrast, PMCs contracted by the British government seem held to a stricter standard, with these mercenaries having to obtain a government-approved licence before they can operate in Iraq. Technically, all military operations conducted by PMCs fall under the Geneva Conventions, and any violations may be prosecuted in the same manner as those of military personnel. Realistically, it will be easier to charge and convict mercenaries, as patriotic public outcry will not be such a prominent factor as when a citizen soldier is prosecuted for crimes committed in defense of his country. When referring to accountability in his book An Unorthodox Soldier, Lt Col Tim Spicer, onetime CEO of Sandline writes, “Not accountable to whom? World opinion? Outside politicians? I can only speak for Sandline, but we are always accountable, to our own policies and ethos and to our client government, with whom we always have a binding contract.”

So while modus operandi can be questioned by some, the PMC’s loyalty to their clients seem solid. After all, why would a commercial company screw up future contracts by switching sides — and regardless of Hollywood, it is state clients which are the most lucrative to medium- and large-sized PMCs.What about expense? The current PMC market is estimated at US$100 billion, worldwide, and there is a popular perception that mercenaries are highly paid, far above the pay of a citizen soldier. This is false, and while PMC troops do make better money, it isn’t much better really. Governments are notorious for waste, and it is the same when it comes to war — a lot of money is spent on bureaucracy and needless expenses because this is “the Army way”. A commercial company, on a set budget, liable to its stockholders for profits, will be both cheaper and more efficient.

In the Sri Lankan context, the MoD could reduce the size of the Army and retain it for garrison and security duties in the south, while operations in the NE are outsourced to a PMC. Currently there are several small PMCs run and staffed by Sri Lankans in Iraq, but operations in SL would necessitate a larger more experienced firm. Soldiers released from the Army could then be recruited by this PMC to operate alongside foreign mercenaries, in much the same way we see Sri Lankans working with expat managers in Colombo-based multi-nationals like HSBC or Unilevers. There would also be far less corruption.

Perhaps this is something to think about for the future of warfare, both here and worldwide.

David Blacker was born in Colombo and has lived in Sri Lanka almost all of his life. He served as an enlisted soldier in the Sri Lanka Army in the early 1990s, seeing combat as a nineteen-year-old rifleman at Elephant Pass. He currently lives in Sri Lanka and works in advertising as a creative director.

Blacker’s novel “A Cause Untrue” won the Sri Lankan State Literary Award for Best Novel in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2004. It has also been nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award 2007. It is published by PH Books and is available at all leading bookshops.

This post sent to Groundviews by the author and originally appeared here.