Charles Glass is a journalist, author, and publisher who has frequently reported from the Middle East. His most recent book is Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation (Penguin).
By Charles Glass
Tim Spicer’s career as a soldier of fortune seemed over by 2001, when he attended a lunch at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Founded in 1927 to train officers and diplomats for imperial service, the college, now housed in a Belgrave Square mansion, provides a discreet venue for current and former military officers to meet high-fliers from government and the private sector. But lunch, as Spicer later told me, was soon interrupted by a staff member. “You’d better come and watch this,” he said. “I think a small plane crashed into the twin towers.”
As Spicer watched the World Trade Center disintegrate on television, his fellow diners called their offices or left for headquarters. Foreign soldiers and one defense minister made reservations to fly home, where they might be needed to support an American response.
Spicer, however, had nowhere to report. Having retired in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel after twenty years in the British Army, he had first tried his hand at investment banking, then entered a more appropriate profession: freelance soldiering. Unfortunately, a couple of scandal-ridden missions in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone had sullied his reputation and caused both the press and the Foreign Office to label him a reckless mercenary. His subsequent exoneration by a parliamentary inquiry made little difference in a business where discretion, not notoriety, attracted clients. Spicer was, by most measures, damaged goods.
Until that September afternoon, Spicer’s job, like that of the freelance military operatives who preceded him, consisted of filling the voids left by departed imperial armies. This was a function of Cold War caution. As Europe decolonized in Africa and Asia, it became necessary to disguise Third World “interventions” as rogue operations. To that end, Britain gave its informal imprimatur to Colonel David Stirling— who had founded the hit-and-run Special Air Service unit during World War II—to lead former (and more than a few active) soldiers in support of the royal houses of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
The French government winked at the sundry adventures of the mercenary Bob Denard in Angola, Gabon, and what was then Rhodesia. South Africa’s apartheid regime got in on the act, blessing “Mad” Mike Hoare’s operations in the newly independent Congo and the Seychelles, and even the United States was not without its own hired guns in Latin America.
The unique selling point of these mercenaries was their nominal independence, allowing their home governments to preserve a layer of deniability.
(This led to what we might euphemistically call a freebooting atmosphere: in 1978, for example, Denard seized control of an entire country, the Comoro Islands, which France permitted him to run until 1989, when it finally deemed him a liability.)
An added benefit was that the Third World clients picked up the tab for all services. This arm’s-length policy endured through the Cold War era until that day in September 2001, when the world really did change. For mercenaries, at least, it got better—much, much better.
In the autumn of 2011, I entered the new world of privateering in one of its two main theaters, Afghanistan. (The other, of course, is Iraq.) The word “mercenary,” beloved of centuries of soldiers-for-hire, is no longer used. The men with guns are contractors, and the firms employing them are variously called private-security companies (PSCs), private-military companies (PMCs), and private-security providers (PSPs). Many are traded on stock exchanges. Their directors no longer sport Bob Denard’s bush beret and automatic rifle. Instead they are armed with laptops, PowerPoint, and legal memos.
Some changes are arguably cosmetic, while others go much deeper. Where privateers once substituted for government armies, they now work alongside them. Deniability is no longer required; indeed, publicity attracts business. At the same time, Western governments have pushed the pay of military contractors to many times above what Third World dictators could afford. While Bob Denard retired to a small house in the Paris suburbs with a few tribal souvenirs, Tim Spicer has acquired a lavish estate in the tax haven of Bermuda.
The golden age of the freelance soldier is now, and its end is anything but nigh.
Spicer had arrived in Kabul a day earlier to finalize three new contracts for Aegis Defence Services, the company he founded in 2002, including a tentative agreement to take over protection of the vast American Embassy complex. His main concern, though, was Decree 62. Issued back in August 2010 by President Hamid Karzai, the order called for private-security forces to be dissolved or expelled from the country by the end of the year. After negotiations with the U.S. Embassy and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Karzai extended the deadline to March 20, 2012. Even with this reprieve, however, Spicer and the fifty-odd foreign and local security contractors in Afghanistan would eventually get the boot—unless, of course, they found a suitable loophole.
My reception at Kabul Airport hinted at the company’s clout. Disembarking the plane from Dubai, I was met by an efficient Afghan man inside the arrivals hall—unlike my fellow passengers, most of them middle-aged Western men in khaki shirts and baseball caps, whose handlers awaited them on the far side of customs. Nearly the last passenger off the plane, I was first out of the airport.
Who was my escort, who ignored long lines and airport officials alike? An Aegis operative later identified him for me: “Former head of Airport Customs.” Aegis, I was about to discover, was the elite private force in Afghanistan—the gentleman in a world of players.
A company car drove me from the airport to a nearby compound owned and managed by ACCL International. This Dubai-based company is essentially a contractor to the contractors, providing “life support services” to the numerous private armies operating in Afghanistan. Camp ACCL was one of seventeen the company ran throughout Afghanistan. Its 5,000 employees supplied beds, linen and laundry service, three hot meals a day, Internet connections, and satellite television in twelve of the country’s thirty-four provinces.
Our car stopped at a rolling metal gate in the camp’s thick concrete wall. Armed Afghan guards exited a side door to take up positions in the road, lest attackers breach the gate when it opened to admit us. Once the gate slid shut, the guards came inside and inspected the car for bombs (but not for weapons, since firearms and knives are normal cargo for most vehicles entering the camp). Inside the walls, dull beige barracks with Quonset-like corrugated roofs loomed three and four stories high. Separate buildings housed the cafeteria, PX, gym, laundry, and administrative offices. Guard towers made the camp look like a military base, which it more or less was. Xe, the company once known as Blackwater, occupied a similar base next door.
In the main Aegis office, on the third floor of one of the barracks, a twenty-nine-year-old former Royal Marine commando named James Campion gave me the security briefing for new arrivals. Kabul had “a moderate threat assessment,” he told me, the result of “an increased tempo” in recent weeks of attacks on high-profile targets. Incidents included a twenty hour assault on the American Embassy and, two weeks later, the shooting of two American civilians by an Afghan employee of the embassy. Handing me a Kevlar helmet and flak jacket, Campion advised me to keep attack on the compound (there had been none to date), I should make my way to the bottom of the stairwell and await instructions. Medics would be on standby. Conditions permitting, someone would lead us to an underground bunker.
Campion made clear Aegis’s preference for avoiding action. “If we are out on the road and told there is a threat,” he said, “we turn around and go to the nearest safe haven.” Aegis used unarmored cars to avoid notice. If staffers came under fire, their first responsibility was to get away—there was no commercial advantage to firefights. In Iraq, thirty-five employees had been killed and 113 wounded between 2004 and 2011. In Afghanistan, Aegis had yet to lose a single contractor.
I finally saw Spicer the next morning, when an Afghan driver took the two of us, along with three staff members, to the Panjshir Valley. Our old and soft-skin SUV blended in with the other cars rumbling along the highway.
Spicer, with his lean build and sandy brown hair, looked younger than his fifty-eight years: L.L.Bean might have used him, in pressed jeans and a white dress shirt, as a catalogue model on a country jaunt.
As we drove north, Spicer explained that he had been laboring to distance himself from the bad publicity created by many of his fellow contractors.
“If something happens to one company,” he observed, “it rubs off on the whole sector. People regularly say to me, ‘What do you do?’ I say I run a private security company. And they say, ‘Like Blackwater?’ ”
To combat the old image of Mike Hoare’s gunmen shooting up African villages, as well as the more contemporary image of Blackwater massacring seventeen unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Spicer had become an advocate for international regulation. He supported a Swiss initiative that culminated in the creation of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) of 2010, which obliges the 307 companies that have signed it to observe humanitarian law.
Although it is a voluntary agreement rather than an enforceable treaty, the ICoC lent a kind of legitimacy to a controversial industry. At the same time, Spicer’s advocacy certainly helped to burnish his own company’s image. “We’ve built a brand,” he told me. “We’ve built a reputation for integrity.
We’ve dispelled all the myths about gunslingers and mercenaries and having no moral compass.”
Our route paralleled the Panjshir River, coursing through sheer defiles and jagged parcels of green farmland. The rusted ruins of tanks and armored personnel carriers, cratered by bullets and collapsing into the soil, disfigured the landscape—reminders of the Soviet Union’s doomed campaign to subdue and modernize Afghanistan. American military bases appeared on the horizon, new monuments to the same ambition.
We were heading to the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik “Lion of Panjshir,” whose assassination by Al Qaeda in September 2001 was the prelude to the attack on New York and Washington two days later. Massoud’s presence still haunted the area. When we stopped for breakfast, it was beside the rickety bridge his forces crossed on their retreat from Kabul in 1996, during the Taliban conquest of the city. Spicer had long admired Massoud’s willingness to go head-to-head with both the Soviets and the Taliban. But Spicer’s ties to the region went back much further, to his father’s service in British India’s North-West Frontier (now the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan). As an officer in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, James Spicer had taken part in the hunt for the era’s premier insurgent, Mirza Ali Khan, who led Pashtun tribesmen in a rebellion against the “infidel” British from 1936 to 1947.
The British never captured Mirza. Yet this futile manhunt had allowed Spicer’s father to participate in what his son would later call “the last round of the ‘Great Game’ ”—the geopolitical tussle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia.
Near Massoud’s birthplace of Jangalak, the road wound up a steep hill to his mausoleum, a domed, nearly completed structure faced in brilliant limestone.
After removing his shoes and striding along the red carpets, Spicer stood in silence before the black marble crypt that held the warlord’s remains.
In the wake of Massoud’s murder had come the 9/11 attacks—and the transformation of Spicer’s career. Before then, he was a bit player in the world of private security, who had left Her Majesty’s service because the shrinking British army had no room for him as a general.
Now, ex-generals worked for him. On the drive back to Kabul, I asked Spicer about his reversal of fortune. At the time of his Royal Defence College lunch, Spicer explained, he was leaving Sandline, the firm that had wrecked his reputation. Named for the “line in the sand” that George H. W. Bush had drawn in Kuwait in 1990, the company was cast in the old Stirling–Denard–Hoare mold. In his 1999 memoir-cum-apologia An Unorthodox Soldier: Peace and War and the Sandline Affair, Spicer noted that the firm “was created to tackle a growing number of situations which the world’s major nations are unwilling or unable to tackle themselves, or to assist smaller nations where these military skills were found necessary—and lacking.”
Spicer had helped to found Sandline in 1996. He was then working a dull financial job at Foreign and Colonial Investments. Sandline’s partners—notably, Simon Mann (who, like Spicer, had served in the Scots Guards regiment) and oil-company executive Tony Buckingham—easily enticed him into the world of private security. No doubt he was happy to get back into the field.
Still, overheads and risks were high, rewards low. And on contract in Papua New Guinea in 1997, Spicer discovered that Third World employers were not always reliable.
The PNG government hired Sandline to put down a secessionist movement on the island of Bougainville and secure a copper mine for a Rio Tinto Zinc subsidiary. Before the operation could get rolling, however, the head of the PNG defense forces staged a coup d’état against the prime minister, who had hired Sandline. Spicer was beaten up and thrown into a ramshackle prison, from which he attempted to escape. Only the intervention of the British High Commissioner won his release, and he subsequently sued the PNG government for payment of his fee and expenses.
A year later, he had an even more bitter experience while commanding a Sandline operation in Sierra Leone. After Spicer helped to restore the nation’s ousted president, British foreign secretary Robin Cook accused him of violating a United Nations arms embargo by exporting weapons to Sierra Leone without the Foreign Office’s knowledge. Spicer countered that the Foreign Office had given its blessing to the operation, a view that was later backed up by a parliamentary investigation, which established that officials had sanctioned the exports. But clearly the freebooting era of private security was winding down.
By the time he published his memoir, in fact, Spicer perceived the hazy outlines of a new mercenary model. The book was a hinge between the old world and the new. Although he still thought that a private military company might function as a “fire brigade,” quieting combat zones by force, Spicer predicted “a useful supporting role for PMCs, not least in relieving the national forces of time- and troop-absorbing routine tasks: guarding convoys and vital installations, repatriation of prisoners, caring for refugees, clearing rear areas.”
In 1999, though, the old interventionists such as Britain, France, and the United States still had little need for such services.
A year after 9/11, Spicer founded Aegis with three friends in London. Less than two years later, in May 2004, the U.S. government awarded the firm a contract for $293 million to provide security services in Iraq. And that was only the beginning of America’s commitment to Aegis. By April 2011, reported the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “Aegis had received over $1 billion for its services.”
How much, I asked Spicer, was the firm’s annual turnover before it landed the American contracts? He smiled. “About eight hundred thousand.”
Aegis’s mission initially had been to sell antipiracy services. This was a growing field—yet the returns were picayune compared with the massive contracts other companies were winning in Iraq. In 2003, Blackwater, the North Carolina firm founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, signed a $27 million no-bid contract to guard L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).1
Through the hole that the Bush Administration opened for Blackwater poured the backfield of DynCorp,
1 Bremer himself was no stranger to the private-security world, having worked for Kissinger Associates and Marsh Crisis Consulting before he took on the Iraq proconsulship. As a parting gift to the mercenaries he had so lavishly patronized, he issued Order Number 17, which effectively immunized them from prosecution, whether for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Triple Canopy, Titan Corporation, CACI, Custer Battles, and a dozen other corporate warriors, some of them created from scratch to cash in on the bonanza.
The United States was fighting two wars, after all. Deploying troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan while maintaining more than 800 overseas installations had stretched the resources of a military that had scaled back manpower (if not weaponry) since the end of the Cold War. Recruiting additional troops and reintroducing conscription were politically risky. But hiring mercenary armies was not, and it also fit the Bush Administration’s preference for the private provision of public services.
Political appointees under the dual spell of Ayn Rand and Dick Cheney had already farmed out the feeding, washing, and housing of the American military. The Quartermaster Corps, which victualed and clothed more than 3 million American G.I.’s in Europe during World War II, was now redundant.
Taking this logic a step further, the U.S. military, which we taxpayers expect to protect us, stopped protecting itself. Instead, the Bush Administration paid contractors to do that job. And it paid them well. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that private military contracts in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 cost the United States between $6 billion and $10 billion. (The CBO’s inability to pinpoint a figure indicates the slippery oversight of all those “costplus” contracts.)
Spicer went to Baghdad at the beginning of 2004 to claim a share of the biggest market for security services ever known. He did, of course, have a problem. The 1998 mess in Sierra Leone had soured Spicer’s relations with Britain’s Labour government. Worse, his war of words with Robin Cook had made him persona non grata at the Foreign Office, even after Cook’s resignation in 2003.
One British diplomat I knew in Baghdad at that time told me the Foreign Office had banned all contact with Spicer. Spicer was on his own in Iraq, then, without any diplomatic contacts. In a recent email, an Iraqi friend of mine (who asked not to be identified) recalled meeting him on that visit: He showed up in early 2004 at my house in the Green Zone. He walked in carrying two Kalashnikovs—and was otherwise wearing a very nice pair of corduroys, a sweater, and a country shirt. He looked like he was at a country house, minus the Kalashnikovs. He told me that he needs the Kalashnikovs, as he does not understand the situation there yet. He very gently placed them on a table at the entrance of my house. He asked a series of questions—and then proceeded to tell me that he was bidding for a contract to protect oil installations in the south to replace the Erinys contract with the Ministry of Oil. I told him that he needed to have relationships with the tribes in the area, as well as the main political parties. He appeared to have been to Basra and told me that his friends there (meaning, I assumed, the British military) had put him in touch with tribes in the area.
Nothing came of the oil-protection leads, so Spicer pursued other contracts. He looked at providing protection for the court that was going to try Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis, though, kept that for themselves. They too had established PSCs, and like their American benefactors, had begun to receive large sums from Iraq’s government and from private companies with little if any competitive bidding. (One Iraqi I know recently sold his share in a PSC for $100 million.)
By early 2004, when Spicer visited, Iraq had become among the most anarchic countries on earth. Militias, insurgents, and suicide bombers roamed at will. This precarious state of affairs had forced millions of people to flee. Bremer’s demobilization of the Iraqi army and police added to the lawlessness.
And PMCs, far from contributing to stability, made matters worse. Contractors were running amok, taking part in torture at Abu Ghraib, attacking civilians, shooting at one another, and occasionally firing on American forces. No one coordinated their operations, communications, or logistics.
With this lethal chaos as a backdrop, Spicer came up with a solution for the Defense Department: let a private-security company police private security. If a firm like Aegis could clamp down on the industry mayhem, it might remove some of the opprobrium created by Blackwater (four of whose employees had been attacked, killed, burned, and hanged from a bridge in Fallujah that March). Impressed by the pitch, the Defense Department drew up a Request for Proposal (RFP) and invited companies to bid for the contract.
Until then, most security contracts had been awarded to American companies. To raise his profile in the United States, Spicer quickly opened a Washington office. Meanwhile, his bid may have been assisted by two retired British officers working with the CPA in Baghdad, brigadier generals Anthony Hunter-Choat and James Ellery.
In Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, the journalist Robert Young Pelton argued that the two Britons, both acquainted with Spicer, helped to prepare the Defense Department’s RFP. If so, this certainly might have given Aegis the inside track.
According to cofounder Dominic Armstrong, Aegis cut its cost estimate “to the bone” to submit a reasonably priced offer for the contract it may well have designed. When the Defense Department awarded the firm $293 million in May 2004 for the largest military contract to date, Spicer was suddenly capo di tutti capi among better connected and more established competitors. Indeed, if his bid hadn’t panned out, Spicer’s operations might still be limited to tracking pirates and guarding the odd base on the frontiers of the American empire.
The contract prompted a certain amount of outrage, not the least from DynCorp. Founded by American World War II veterans in 1946, it was the oldest firm in the field, and employed a regiment of expensive lobbyists to retain its insider status in Washington. Ninety-five percent of DynCorp’s $2 billion annual turnover came from U.S. government contracts, and it resented losing one to Spicer. The company immediately filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, questioning the bidding process as well as Spicer’s fitness to work for the U.S. government, given his checkered résumé.
DynCorp, naturally, had its own reasons to discredit Spicer. But five Democratic senators, including Ted Kennedy, asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review the contract, suggesting that Spicer had been insufficiently vetted. They were concerned not only about the Sandline disasters in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, but a 1992 incident in which two British soldiers under Spicer’s command in Northern Ireland had shot and killed a some doubts about Spicer’s suitability as “responsible bidder.” Sandra Sieber of the Army Contracting Agency declared that the Pentagon was “not aware of the allegations” when evaluating the bid from Aegis—and the contract was allowed to go forward.
The tracking devices Aegis had used on ships were gradually installed on contractor vehicles. From the Reconstruction Operations Center in Baghdad and five remote outposts, Aegis monitored and coordinated in real time the movements of its competitors in Iraq (with the exception of Blackwater and DynCorp, which had refused to install the dashboard transponders). Mobile teams in SUVs now had less of an excuse to open fire on one another, since Aegis advised them which vehicles were full of fellow contractors. In a January 2009 report, SIGIR noted that the firm had tracked 55,000 contractor movements and reported nearly 400 infractions of the rules, including eighty by its own staff—a performance the agency rated as “satisfactory to outstanding.”
(It’s worth noting that these tracking systems, which reduced clashes between PMCs, did nothing to prevent contractors from firing on civilians.)
When the original contract expired in 2007, it was renewed and expanded to include the protection of Army Corps of Engineers personnel, with a new price tag of $475 million. This time, there were protests from Blackwater and Erinys—and again, the GAO upheld the contract. No company likes to lose business to a competitor. But for the Americans, Spicer had three additional strikes against him: he was foreign, he was an arriviste, and he had no lobbyists.
When I asked Spicer why he didn’t hire a K Street firm, he said, “It’s a very open system. They put out a tender document, and you read it and choose how you want to respond to it. You put your tender in, and you follow the rules. Then you either win or you don’t.” He had won, repeatedly, and his satisfaction was unconcealed as the car sped us through the Panjshir.
Now that he was virtually a partner of the U.S. military, Spicer created a mirror image of a national army, with everything but a flag and a band: armed troops, medical services, logistics, communications, transportation, civil affairs, intelligence, and even a chaplain named David Cooper.
(“He came to work in our civil-affairs department,” Spicer explained, “and he happened to be a vicar. I think people like to have a natter with the vicar.”) Aegis provided its clients with daily intelligence reports on security in Iraq that one Arab ambassador told me were more accurate than the Iraqi government’s.
Spicer now turned his attention to Afghanistan, whose military contracts were minuscule compared with Iraq’s. In part this was because in much of Afghanistan, the United States had ready-made force protection in the form of local militias. Warlords transformed themselves into businessmen and their armed gangs into private military companies to protect bases from other warlords—an instant evolution from feudalism to capitalism.
That these militias were competing with the very state that NATO was ostensibly trying to prop up, and that they often served merely to protect bases from other militias, mattered less than having cheap local support.
For sensitive operations, however, like guarding interrogation centers and black-ops sites, the military preferred Western firms. The Defense Department hired Aegis to protect a base in western Afghanistan, close to the border with Iran. I asked Spicer why American taxpayers should pay a private company to protect the army they were already paying to protect them.
“You are getting a better deal,” he replied, “because your tax dollars that are devoted to the military function are actually being used for the military function.”
In other words, combat soldiers should be in combat, not guarding isolated bases, industrial facilities, or supply convoys. Such services were “more cost effective,” Spicer argued, when they were delivered by PSCs. His analysis rested in part on the idea that while contractors made more money than soldiers, they also worked on a project to-project basis and didn’t draw longterm benefits such as college tuition, health care, and pensions.
As in Iraq, however, contractor behavior in Afghanistan reflected badly on the U.S. military and its Afghan allies. When the Northern Alliance and American forces entered Kabul in November 2001, the country had no army, no police, and no judiciary. In order to install Hamid Karzai as chairman of Afghanistan’s interim administration (and later as president), the United States assumed responsibility for his safety. The Defense Department assigned his protection to Special Forces troops; they saved his life from a gunman who fired on his car in September 2002. Two months later, though, the military passed the ball to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which in turn handed it off to DynCorp—despite a congressional resolution urging that Karzai’s personal guard “should be composed of United States diplomatic security, law enforcement or military personnel, and should not utilize private contracted personnel to provide actual physical protection services.”
Now Karzai appeared in public surrounded by bulked-up gunmen with flak jackets, sunglasses, and automatic rifles. It was as if Barack Obama had replaced his discreet Secret Service detail with the French Foreign Legion.
Sayed Edris Mir, one of the owners of the Afghan White Eagle security company, explained to me the reaction of his countrymen.
“When Karzai first appeared with American bodyguards,” Mir told me after a lavish lunch at his Kabul home, “he lost his face for many Afghans. He just revived the old memory of Afghan kings being installed by foreigners. One bad name in our history is Shah Shuja [Durrani]. He came with British forces [in 1839] and had a British regiment guarding his palace. For Afghans, he was a puppet, he was a not a real king. At the end of the day, he got killed by Afghans.
[Soviet-supported president Babrak] Karmal came with a Russian military plane from Tashkent to Kabul. And he was protected and accompanied by Russian bodyguards. And he was also a puppet. . . . Afghanistan fought him because of that.”
In 2004, DynCorp guards slapped a government minister and routinely humiliated the president’s Afghan visitors.
A year later, members of his security detail were seen returning to their compound
drunk and accompanied by a prostitute. Afghans began complainin g to Karzai about his guards, who were helping to destroy what little credibility he had with the public. That October, Karzai finally dismissed his DynCorp security detachment.
However, this hardly ended the spectacle of bad behavior by private contractors.
In 2009, the Washington Post reported that DynCorp employees had hired a teenage boy to perform at a company party what eyewitnesses described as homoerotic dances. Although a spokesman told the Post that the firm had taken “appropriate disciplinary actions,” Karzai was furious at the news.
Subsequent revelations were far worse. A September 1 letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) featured a list of mortifying disclosures regarding the ArmorGroup staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul:
In inspections of the guard force operations, the Department of State observed that 18 guards were absent from their posts at the US Embassy, Kabul. . . .Guards have come to POGO with allegations and photographic evidence that some supervisors and guards are engaging in near-weekly deviant hazing and humiliation of subordinates. . . . The lewd and deviant behavior of approximately 30 supervisors and guards has resulted in complete distrust of leadership and a breakdown of the chain of command, compromising security.
Footage of the “deviant” activities soon appeared on ABC News, while one ArmorGroup employee described supervisors “peeing on people, eating potato chips out of ass cracks, vodka shots out of ass cracks . . . broken doors after drunken brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity.” The State Department announced that it would yank its $189 million contract for embassy protection from the company and find another PMC to do the job.2 And less than a year later, Karzai issued Decree 62, which at least theoretically would kick all contractors out of the country.
Karzai had disregarded his country’s history by relying on foreigners to protect him. On the other hand, trusting his security to fellow Afghans carried other risks. Proof of this came in July 2011, when an Afghan bodyguard shot the president’s notoriously corrupt half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Other senior Afghans on the government side had already been killed by locals on their security details, as had CIA and U.S. military personnel. Whether the killers acted for personal reasons, as U.S. officials alleged, or were operating on behalf of the Taliban, the effect was the same. Foreign security details were a public-relations nightmare, but at least they did not assassinate their charges. It may be a measure of the dubious nature of the American enterprise in Afghanistan that few of our allies trust their own people to guard them.
I asked Ashraf Ghani, the former minister of finance and a sometime Karzai adviser, why the president had 2
The State Department first chose EOD Technology as a replacement, then decided to go with Aegis, which has yet to take over from ArmorGroup.
hired DynCorp in the first place. He said, “They were brought in during the heyday of our innocence.” That heyday is coming to an end, or so the Afghan government hopes.
Ghani, whom I have known since we studied together at the American University of Beirut in 1972, has an impeccable record of integrity. His drive to end corruption in the finance ministry, which he oversaw from 2002 to 2004, earned him more enemies than friends.
He ran for president against Karzai in the 2009 elections, winning fourth place in a contest that most international observers condemned as fraudulent. Yet in November 2010, he accepted Karzai’s invitation to supervise the implementation of Decree 62, because he believed in “the objective of establishing full Afghan government control over security.”
In his office at the Council of Ministers tower in downtown Kabul, he told me that for the past five years Karzai had “been raising the question of security companies as an obstacle to assertion of Afghan sovereignty. Last November, this became the top issue of discussion between the United States and the Afghan government.” Of course, Karzai had already been obliged to extend the original deadline of Decree 62 to March 20, 2012. But on that date, Ghani insisted, the PMCs would surrender their posts to the state-run “Afghan Public Protection Force, which would replace the companies as the answer to the provision of security.”
The international community in Kabul is skeptical about the APPF—a national police unit created in 2009—assuming the responsibilities of tens of thousands of foreign and Afghan private troops who protect everything from ISAF bases to development projects in the hinterland. A visit to the fortified United States Embassy compound in Kabul confirmed just how difficult it would be to pick up the reins.
Here was the best-guarded facility in the city, possibly the country: just getting inside was an accomplishment. From the Charahi Sehat roundabout, I walked through a gate manned by Afghan police. Several roadblocks followed. Farther along, other Afghan police at a checkpoint asked to see my passport. I then walked down a sidewalk lined with concrete dragon’s teeth and protected by armored cars with .45- caliber submachine guns. Next came a private-security gatehouse staffed by armed Nepalese guards working for ArmorGroup, who waved me over to a concrete plaza and the Compound Access Control. This single-story steel-and glass bunker was the final obstacle, where guards relieved me of my passport, phone, and tape recorder before sending me through a metal detector, then a bulletproof-glass entryway to the actual compound. At last, I was inside.
It was hard to imagine that an armed force smaller than a battalion could breach the embassy grounds. Even so, ArmorGroup’s precautions were not flawless. In September 2011, Taliban gunmen had crept into the half- constructed Marriott Hotel overlooking the embassy. Firing from the roof, they forced embassy staff into bunkers and engaged the guards in a fight that lasted twenty hours.
During my visit, however, what was most striking was the enforced serenity. Nothing within the embassy walls resembled the ramshackle city outside, with its mountains of debris and open sewers. The place suggested a new college or corporate campus in any American suburb, complete with swimming pool, impeccable lawns, offices, and apartment houses. It was not America’s largest embassy, a distinction reserved for the one in Baghdad. The roster nonetheless listed six ambassadors and an abundance of diplomats, many of whom I had met on past assignments in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. I sought some of them out for a friendly conversation. (The diplomatsasked not to be named.)
We had lunch beside the pool, carrying our trays out from the cafeteria. On the menu were tacos, refried beans, hot dogs, and salads—a cut above the ACCL canteen. The people I spoke with, all of whom were conscientious civil servants with good records, did not believe the PMCs would simply disappear with Karzai’s deadline. Ninety-five percent of security employees, I was told, were Afghans. They had nowhere to go, and disarming them would add another insurgency to the one already under way.
For the foreigners, there were, as Tim Spicer and the other company directors had hoped, loopholes. Embassy protection, falling under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, was already excluded from Decree 62. Aegis, whose contractors were preparing to take over the embassy contract, would stay.
“The implementing partners [of USAID projects] are guarded by PSCs,” one diplomat told me. “They protect residences, offices, and work in the field. If the PSCs go bye-bye, who’s going to guard them? It’s a huge issue, looming and getting bigger.” All present asserted that the big companies implementing agricultural and other projects for USAID would rather leave than rely on Afghans to defend them from the Taliban. If the government succeeded in expelling the foreign security firms, what would happen? The answer: “They won’t be gone. They’ll be back as risk-management companies.” Risk management was a rose by another name. It was an elegant solution to what both the government and the companies themselves saw as nothing more than a public-relations problem.3
One of the leading experts on private security in Afghanistan, Stephen Brooking, agrees that exceptions and loopholes make the departure of PMCs highly unlikely. (Brooking, a British adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, once worked for Aegis.) He has written that a number of bilateral agreements between the United States and Afghanistan “give immunity from most Afghan laws and regulations to their contractors, and in some cases sub-contractors. These agreements, which supersede all Afghan domestic laws and regulations, would mean that many PSC contracts would legally be allowed to continue against the wishes of the Afghan Government.”
When I told Ashraf Ghani that no one in the foreign community believed the president could expel the PMCs, he answered, “That’s their problem.” The issue was among the most important facing a country
3 The diplomats seemed equally untroubled by the other big event on the Afghan calendar: 2014, the year by which President Obama promised that all foreign forces would be gone from the country. I asked whether the Afghan government could survive without American troops. “The troops are not coming out by 2014,” an official told me during my visit to the embassy. “You can’t have inconsistent messages. We are not going to abandon this country. The United States has a huge security stake in the region.”
already beset with problems—including the not unlikely scenario that the Taliban would win the war. If the Afghan state, effectively created and materially supported by the United States, could not transform itself into the country’s primary military force, this weakness would be its undoing.
“The president and all of us who have experienced the history of the 1990s are haunted by the specter of militias,” Ghani said. “The Soviet-backed government formed militias, and those militias became drivers of immense conflict and destruction. So, monopoly of force by the state is a key criterion of state functionality for us.” Monopoly of force was the sine qua non of sovereignty, which the Karzai government barely exercised in Kabul—let alone in the Taliban dominated provinces.
Ghani reacted angrily to my observation that the exceptions and loopholes in Decree 62 essentially drove a huge truck through the policy: “As I said, the intent by March 20 is for the APPF to replace these [private-security companies].
That is the policy that the president is insisting upon, and all of us are insisting upon.” Would that, I asked, include ISAF bases? “Yes, very clearly, because they are indicated.” And would that include American bases? “American bases are part of ISAF.” By next April, I asked, if I go to an American forward base, will I be greeted by APPF guards? “Yes. Or the American soldiers themselves will not be there.”
In fact, the deadline for ISAF bases has since been extended to March 2013. Still, a conflict is clearly developing between the Afghan state and its main international guarantor. And if Ghani should be proven wrong, it will show that a small country dependent on American arms for the survival of its government cannot exercise sovereignty over the private military industry.
Meanwhile, Aegis’s business is thriving. It is operating in twelve countries and on the high seas. After years of providing antipiracy intelligence and advice, it is beginning to deploy armed guards on merchant ships in the Indian Ocean. Following the victory of NATO-directed forces in Libya, Aegis flew into what was called a “hostile environment” to facilitate Western business operations—meaning everything from personal protection to decent housing to building relationships with local power brokers. Even the Foreign Office, which had once blacklisted Spicer, was awarding him contracts to guard its embassies.
The company has had no difficulty recruiting qualified ex-soldiers in Britain, where unemployment is high and 20,000 troops leave the military each year. As long as much of the environment on land and sea remains “hostile,” Aegis will have work. “Unfortunately,” wrote Spicer back in 1999, “war is still the way that business gets done in the world.”
He is correct. War has become a public-private partnership. The private operatives enjoy a huge advantage: they are shielded from courts-martial for misconduct. In most cases, the worst that can happen is dismissal, and finding one’s name in an informal “do not hire” database.
But the less selective firms will hire anyway. Conversations with contractors in Kabul suggested that DynCorp, whose misbehavior had botched its relationships with both Karzai and the U.S. embassy, paid the least and hired people other companies would not touch.
And what of the actual contractors, the foot soldiers in this public-private partnership? In the ACCL compound, I met staff from Aegis, Triple Canopy, and other major companies. They were mostly middle-aged men supplementing military or police pensions in order to support families at home: American, British, Canadian, French, South African.
Mornings in the canteen reminded me of breakfast in Saudi oil camps, where the familiar fixings maintain a pretense of home: peanut butter, pancakes with syrup, scrambled eggs and bacon, watery American coffee from metal urns poured into white ceramic mugs. A few of the men had goatees, oversize arms, and tattoos, but most would be at home in the clubhouse of a municipal golf course. The talk was of family at home and the presents, usually Afghan carpets or scarves, they were sending back to their wives.
One morning, six men and two women on either side of a refectory table recalled football matches they had attended or seen on television. One of the men spoke wistfully of Green Bay Packers fans, who congregated in subzero temperatures in the stadium parking lot to drink, eat hot dogs, and listen to the game. “Those were fans,” he said. Another remembered how his father would watch one football game on television while listening to two more on transistor radios. A woman who worked in a security-company office and looked like a country-and-western singer said, “My grandmother loved baseball. She was such a fan that, when she was in her eighties, she went down to the dugout and they let her throw the first pitch. It was only four feet away, but she did it.”
In one of the barracks, there was an upstairs bar, which opened for business only on Thursdays. The bartender poured out beer, whiskey, and vodka.
Most of the customers were the same older men I’d seen at breakfast. While recorded music played, there was some mild flirtation with the few women present. It was all over by midnight.
There were no incidents, let alone any whiff of the orgiastic and culturally offensive binges DynCorp and Armor-Group had staged.
One evening, however, a contractor who had worked for Blackwater in Iraq invited me over to his barracks in the adjoining compound for a drink. The more we drank, the more he unloaded what he had seen in Iraq. He condemned his colleagues’ actions, but admitted that he had been afraid to report them. Whistleblowers in PSCs had, to date, been fired rather than rewarded for heeding the dictates of their conscience.
I was not sure how much to believe.
Then, he offered to show me some video footage that Blackwater operatives had taken in the field. I could make the tapes public, he said, but I had to protect his identity. Refilling our scotch glasses, he told me to get ready.
Each video clip opened with an onscreen date and location. The first, identified as “Baghdad, Iraq, May–September 2005,” showed Blackwater convoys racing through town. Suddenly, the door of a Blackwater SUV opened and a rifle fired at passing traffic.
“They opened the door,” my companion said. “You should never break the seal.” A still photo showed some graffiti scrawled on a metal beam: this is for the americans of blackwater that were murdered here in 2004 semper fidelis 3/5 ps fuck you.
The next tape had been taken by a camera in the turret of an armored vehicle. An AK-47 fired from the turret at cars that had stopped to let the convoy pass. Whoever was firing the AK did so enthusiastically and often, sending rounds into parked cars and an overhead bridge. Another sequence showed a contractor vehicle rear-ending a car, shattering its back windshield.
The footage continued. A Humvee smashed into a car to move it out of the way. Guards swore at passersby. More armored vehicles smashed into civilian cars. Blackwater helicopters shot at targets below in a Baghdad street. When the action sequences stopped, still photos of booze parties began.
“What we don’t like,” Spicer had told me during our drive through the Panjshir, “is barreling down the road at a hundred miles per hour shooting.” He preferred a more subtle approach, which would soften the ubiquitous image of “four black SUVs, mirror sunglasses, men with guns.” Yet the Blackwater footage, filmed a year or more after Aegis had begun its coordination of PMCs in Iraq, showed exactly the sort of behavior Spicer deplored. One might argue that Aegis had been paid $293 million to stop the clashes between contractors, not to protect civilians. There was also the fact that although much of the behavior in the videos was boorish and menacing— not the sort of thing to win Iraqi hearts and minds—there was no proof that anybody had been harmed.
But what about the tape dated April 1, 2006, which was shot from the front seat of the fourth car in an armored convoy? Driving along a wide boulevard in Baghdad, the lead vehicle swerved close to the curb of a traffic island. A woman in a black full-length burka began to cross the street. The vehicle struck the woman and knocked her unconscious body into the gutter. The cars slowed for a moment, but did not stop, nor did they even determine whether the victim was dead or alive.
A voice in the car taking the video said, “Oh, my God!” Yet no one was heard on the radio requesting help for her. Most sickeningly, the sequence had been set to an AC/DC song, whose pounding, metallic chorus declared:
“You’ve been . . . thunderstruck!”
The tape ended with the inscription in support of security, peace, freedom and democracy everywhere.