Unleashing dogs of war in Iraq has changed rules of engagement

NON-military security support is growing worldwide and the privatisation of war is becoming a popular theme after the Iraq conflict.

“The fact of the matter is that war will be privatised,” maintains a mercenary veteran of one of the Congo campaigns and of the calamitous, mercenary-led attempt to overthrow the Seychelles government in 1981.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’, but of ‘when’. More mercenary intervention happens in many trouble spots worldwide than is ever reported, much of it sponsored by seemingly innocent governments,” he says.

The octogenarian survivor of two Wild Geese expeditions declined to be identified because “you never break the skyline, no matter what”. Now whiling away his twilight years in his B&B and village pub in bucolic England, he reminisces on what it meant to fight other people’s battles.

“It’s like any other war,” he says, “except that you get paid better for fighting in it. It’s also tougher than any other army — strict discipline, relentless training and as dangerous as hell. Don’t expect the cavalry, because there is none.”

With so many paid-private soldiers, South Africa makes a good case study of whether or not police or the military should be government employees, but rather privateers, as they were known in the days when pirates sailed under the Jolly Roger flag.

Not only in South Africa is such privatisation of the fighting man gaining traction. Slowly and stealthily the fight is being taken into battlefields adorned not with national flags, but under the banners of private security firms.

Thehistoryofwar.com says the Seychelles episode illustrates how governments often sought to use mercenaries to carry out their goals with little risk of being incriminated, and points to the then-South African government letting the Seychelles-bound dogs of war off the leash.

“The conditions that allow such soldiers of fortune to thrive and operate not only still exist but are on the increase as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan shows. Many of those listed as civilian contractors are in fact mercenaries and as the allied forces reduce their presence, such private armies are on the increase,” the website says.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, in its Universal Periodic Review, says private military and security companies are “the modern reincarnation of a long lineage of private providers of physical force: corsairs, privateers and mercenaries. Those who are armed can easily switch from a passive-defensive to active-offensive role. They can commit human rights violations and destabilise governments. They cannot be considered soldiers or supporting militias under international humanitarian law, since they are not part of the army or in the chain of command and often belong to a large number of different nationalities.”

Is that what is bothering Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa in the face of South Africa’s rapidly growing (at about 20% a year) private army of security guards and other nongovernment officers of the peace and public safety?

Jose Gomez del Prado, chairman of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights, says “the new security industry of private companies moves large quantities of weapons and military equipment. It provides services for military operations recruiting former militaries as civilians to carry out passive or defensive security”. Mercenaries had practically disappeared in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They reappeared in the 1960s during the decolonisation period mainly in Africa and Asia. The UN adopted a convention which outlaws their activities.

“The issue is that these individuals cannot be considered civilians, given that they often carry and use weapons, interrogate prisoners, load bombs, drive military trucks and fulfil other essential military functions,” Mr Del Prado says.

The Iraq war might best be remembered as the military Rubicon that announced the arrival of the privatisation of war. The milestone came when contractors hired by the Pentagon outnumbered troops on the ground at various points.

By 2008, the US defence department employed 155,826 private contractors in Iraq and 152,275 troops.

This degree of privatisation is unprecedented in modern warfare. The outsourcing continued in Afghanistan, with 94,413 private security contractors in 2010 compared with 91,600 US troops.

The British government is following suit. Last year, the British defence ministry announced that army numbers would shrink from 102,000 to 82,000 in eight years. To make up the difference the army will use “more systematically the skills available in the reserve and … contractors”.

Will South African state security forces go the same way? The Institute for Security Studies’ Dr Johan Burger says it is unthinkable that South Africa’s military or state security could be privatised, or outsourced.

“The state can never abdicate its responsibility to protect itself. It could reduce its permanent force numbers, but it will always maintain a government-controlled force. It would be political suicide to do otherwise.”

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