Dogs of Peace

Harrier jets screamed over-head. Cobra gunships armed with rockets circled the city. Sea Knight helicopters lumbered through billowing columns of yellow smoke marking the landing sites where U.S. Marines alighted last week to seize control of war-torn Monrovia.

They were welcomed as heroes. Shouting crowds cheered and clasped the soldiers' hands. Women sang gospel songs, grateful for a sign that the fighting that has claimed more than 1,000 lives over the past two months might finally be over. An orgy of looting ensued as hordes of hungry people broke into the port in search of food and medicine after two months of near famine. But there was no denying the upwelling of relief in Liberia's beleaguered capital. "Thank you, George Bush," people cried. "Thank God, America."

A happy ending? Perhaps. Optimists hailed the intervention as a victory for international humanitarianism, even a model for the future. The reality is more ambiguous. After all, the American force in Liberia numbers only 200. They join fewer than 800 Nigerian peacekeepers, dispatched by the 15-member Union of West African States early in August. It took months of dithering and diplomacy to put together even this modest mission, in the face of unspeakable atrocities. Overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington made clear that its participation was at best reluctant and would be neither large nor long-lasting. There's talk of sending U.N. peacekeepers in October. But if fighting erupts anew, either in Monrovia or in the two thirds of the country controlled by the rebels, those plans could fall apart. And what happens when, almost inevitably, another humanitarian crisis erupts elsewhere in the world?

It all begs a question: is there not another way to deal with global human calamities? Which brings up a seductive (and controversial) proposal from an obscure British-American company called Northbridge Services Group. In June, as Liberia was descending into anarchy, the firm offered to slip an elite brigade of hired commandos into Monrovia to arrest the country's president, Charles Taylor, the man indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone and widely considered responsible for the killing and chaos that brought Liberia to its knees. No waiting for international peacekeepers. No interminable diplomatic negotiations. No risk of dead American or multinational soldiers. No more war in Liberia. Had the offer been accepted, the company claimed in a statement, "many innocent lives, lost by the failure of the international community to act quickly, could have been saved." And Northbridge promised to do all this for a fee of $4 million.

Unsurprisingly, leaders in Whitehall and Foggy Bottom scoffed. The idea of involving mercenaries--or "private military companies," as they've more recently come to be called--in international crises has long been politically touchy. Doubts about the company itself added to the skepticism. Just this April, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw castigated Northbridge after hearing reports that it might fight alongside rebel armies in Cote d'Ivoire. Still, Northbridge's proposal may not be all that farfetched. Across the world, in fact, the privatization of war--and peacekeeping--has already become an established feature of geopolitical life.

Consider some numbers. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution in Washington estimates that, after the latest gulf war, there are five times as many military contractors on the ground in Iraq as in 1991. Between 1994 and 2002 the U.S. Department of Defense entered into more than 3,000 contracts with private military companies for a total value of roughly $300 billion,, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a journalism watch group in Washington, D.C. Contractors are training security forces in Iraq, flying gunships in Colombia, training civilian police in Bosnia and Kosovo and protecting Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.

In areas as varied as Croatia, Colombia and Sierra Leone, there have been reports that they have even been drawn into combat. This is no longer necessarily a bad thing, says Peter Takirambudde, Human Rights Watch's executive director for Africa. The old notion of the mercenary as a hired killer is outdated. Properly managed and given a specific mandate by international organizations or sovereign governments, Takirambudde believes, private armies can be a useful tool in coping with the world's humanitarian emergencies. "It is not a crazy idea," he says. "Times have changed."

Hiring mercenaries for humanitarian purposes gained legitimacy over the past decade. In the early 1990s Executive Outcomes, a classic South African mercenary group, made a name for itself stepping into Angola's decades-long civil war, seizing lucrative diamond mines for the government. Then came 1994 and the genocide in Rwanda. Executive Outcomes offered to deploy 1,500 soldiers to create havens and stop the mayhem at a cost of $150 million over six months. According to various reports, the plan was considered by the Clinton administration but rejected. In the ensuing carnage, 800,000 Rwandans were killed in little more than 100 days.

In 1995 Sierra Leone's elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah hired Executive Outcomes to defend his government against the brutal rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. The company arrived with Russian helicopter gunships, artillery and air-fuel explosives and within a year quelled the uprising and drove the rebels out. Some humanitarian groups complained of "collateral damage" wrought by the company's savage air attacks. But many in Sierra Leone, especially ordinary people, regarded these soldiers of fortune as national heroes.

Since then, private military companies have taken on a growing array of generally less visible--but no less comprehensive--roles. In Iraq, private military companies from the United States guard sites vulnerable to guerrilla sabotage. A number of companies have sent advisers to train the country's new security and police forces, and many more are on the way. In Colombia, the Washington-based DynCorp is training Colombian forces on coca-leaf eradication and its contractors are piloting planes that destroy coca fields. DynCorp also trains civilian police in Bosnia and employed most of the American contingent for the U.N. civilian mission in Kosovo. When it came time to replace Karzai's U.S. Special Forces bodyguards, whom did the U.S. State Department turn to? DynCorp.

Many American experts see this trend toward "privatization" as desirable, as long as it does not involve actual combat and comes under the auspices of legitimate international or national authority. Col. Thomas Dempsey, a U.S. defense attache to Liberia in the late 1990s, argues that only a nation and its leaders have the right to send its people to war. "When I kill, it is because my president told me to," he says. If a contractor shoots someone, it's for another reason: "to get paid." But private military companies are correct in seeing an opportunity. "In Rwanda, the international community did not step up to the plate," he says. "There are conflicts around the world that require external intervention. Privatized intervention offers a tool to do that."

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a commander of U.S. forces in the first gulf war, makes a related point. The United States, these days, simply does not have enough personnel to perform all the tasks required of it. "Our most precious asset is people, and there are whole categories of things that lend themselves to being outsourced," he says. He dismisses outfits like Northbridge, likening hired fighters to "pirates" and Mafia hit men. But he agrees that it is almost inevitable that the United States, as its military presence around the world grows, will turn more and more to private companies in fulfilling its missions abroad.

The idea is finding currency among foreign governments as well. In Britain, the Foreign Office put out a green paper last year that was surprisingly neutral on private military companies. Though stopping short of endorsing them, neither did it ban them, as was sought by some members of Parliament. Instead, the document listed a series of options including licensing responsible companies. "Today's world is a far cry from the 1960s, when private military activity usually meant mercenaries of the rather unsavory kind involved in postcolonial or neocolonial conflicts," wrote Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "The British government would consider the selective use of private military companies but would not go anywhere near a combat role," says Mariyam Hasham, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Barring that, and assuming such companies would not work against the government's own goals, the sky is the limit.

France, by contrast, has taken a tougher stand, passing the Participation in Mercenary Activity Act on April 3, effectively broadening a ban on individual mercenaries to include corporations. Africa is in "turmoil" partly because of the actions of private military companies, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told the Senate before the vote. That said, France retains its famous (some would say infamous) Foreign Legion, a quasi-private military organization active most recently in Cote d'Ivoire.

Inevitably, controversy over the use of private military companies will grow, and not only because they are being used more and more. The line between combat, on the one hand, and advising or logistical support on the other is inherently fuzzy. Indeed, there are instances where the line has already been crossed, apparently with the knowledge or even encouragement of the governments involved. According to some press reports, for instance, contractors from Military Professional Resources Inc. in Virginia helped plan Croatia's Operation Storm, an offensive supported by the United States against the Bosnian-Serb Army that turned the tide in the Balkan war and set the stage for the Dayton peace accords. The company vociferously denied the accusations. In 1998 International Charter Inc. of Oregon flew transport helicopters in Liberia and Sierra Leone to back up Nigerian peacekeepers. When fired upon, they fired back, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which claims that ICI received a letter from the U.S. ambassador in Sierra Leone authorizing them to do so.

In some cases, regular troops can be less professional than the retired special ops soldiers staffing companies like Northbridge. West African peacekeeping forces from Togo and Nigeria, notes Human Rights Watch's Takirambudde, come from militaries with a track record of rights abuses. That can have consequences worse than ineffectiveness. Last week in Liberia, soldiers from the staff of Nigeria's commanding officer were seen loading looted food and consumer goods into a truck--spoils, they unabashedly admitted, for the general.

Liberia may thus become a test case--not so much for humanitarian interventionism, but for the degree to which the international community turns to the private sector for help. Clearly, enormous amounts of international aid will be required to feed and stabilize the country. The U.N. special envoy to Liberia, Jacques Klein, an American career diplomat, has called for a "massive airlift" and a troop presence close to the 17,500 sent to Sierra Leone during its civil war--a de facto U.N. trusteeship. "If you're going to do anything in Liberia," he told reporters after the U.S. Marines went in, "you have to control the whole country, including its borders." All this would take at least two years, he added, and would include recruiting a team of international civil servants to re-create the country's key ministries, form a caretaker government and create a professional Liberian army.

Hundreds of foreign cops would help train an entirely new police force. Young fighters on both the rebel and government sides would have to be demilitarized and educated. In short, an entire society must be rebuilt, and a new generation of private soldiers will no doubt find some role in the reconstruction.