What the World Can Learn From DynCorp

January 14, 2014

What the World Can Learn From DynCorp

David Isenberg

By David Isenberg

In the past, Dyncorp has come in for criticism for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan. While deserved, that is hardly the end of the story. It is also important to remember that DynCorp has also done great, no, make that outstanding, work.  That would be its, relatively unheralded, work in Liberia.

It is not important for what it says about DynCorp per se, but for what it says about the ability of a private military company to fulfill its potential.  It was this potential, which the world first glimpsed back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the old South African-based Executive Outcomes fought in Angola and Sierra Leone, and when MPRI operated in the Balkans, that got me interested in researching and writing about PMCs.

For those who don’t remember, Liberia is the West African country that was founded by United States colonization while occupied by native Africans. In 1980 a military coup, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, overthrew its leadership, marking the beginning of political and economic instability and two successive civil wars.  Doe, in turn was overthrown by a rebel group led by Charles Taylor in 1990. From 1989 to 1996 one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars ensued, claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displacing a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. These wars resulted in the deaths of between 250,000 and 520,000 people by mid-2003 and devastated the country’s economy. A peace agreement in 2003 led to democratic elections in 2005.

After the elections the United States contracted with DynCorp International to demobilize and rebuild the Armed Forces of Liberia and Ministry of Defense. This was the first time in 150 years that one sovereign nation hired a private company to raise another sovereign nation’s military.

Last November the U.A. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute published the monograph Building Better Armies: An Insider’s Account of Liberia by Sean McFate, author of the forthcoming book, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. (Full disclosure: I’ve met McFate a few times over the years)

McFate is not just another academic. He is an assistant professor at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and an adjunct social scientist at the RAND Corporation. More importantly, for the purpose of this article, he was a program manager for DynCorp International and helped demobilize and rebuild Liberia’s army “from the ground up” after the 14-year civil war. Prior to this, he was an officer and paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Why is what DynCorp accomplished in Liberia important?

We have long known that helping allies build better armies and police forces is a key to regional stability and the exit strategy for costly missions like Afghanistan in an “as they stand up, we stand down” approach. Yet the U.S. track record on this is unacceptably weak. The 2012 coup in Mali was staged by U.S. trained Malian soldiers. In Afghanistan, after years of training, the Pentagon assessed that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently. This does not augur well for U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014 or for the future of Afghanistan. Nor is the United States alone. The United Nations has suffered similar setbacks in East Timor, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ill-trained security forces have staged coups, preyed on the civilian population, and necessarily elongated costly peacekeeping missions. There are many reasons for these failures: Building professional security forces in conflict affected countries is hard to do; there is  a  significant  theory  to  practice  gap  on  how  to  do it; there are no comprehensive practitioner guides or field manuals; and few practical models exist. Worse, the de facto “train and equip” approach is ineffective, as it focuses too much on tactics and techniques and misses important intangibles.

This monograph fills a timely gap in our knowledge of security sector reform [SSR] and offers a unique model to accomplish it. Liberia was once the epicenter of conflict and human rights abuse in West Africa, frequently at the hands of the military. Ten years later, Liberia is stable and even sending a peacekeeping contingent to Mali.

Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and SSR are essential programs for rebuilding shattered states. When the day comes that the fighting in Syria comes to an end you can expect to see those programs there. But, as McFate writes, just because they are essential doesn’t mean they are done well:

In theory, DDR and SSR work together in tandem to help uphold the state’s rule of law and are also gateway capacities, since security, law and order are prerequisites of sustainable development and overall stability. However, in practice, this is rarely done because DDR and SSR are difficult and dangerous. For example, in Liberia the state forces themselves were complicit in wide-scale atrocities and human rights abuses. How exactly does one transform the military from a symbol of terror into an instrument of democracy? How can one make a soldier someone a child would run toward for safety rather than away from in fear?

McFate makes a number of good points about how DDR and SSR should work in theory and often don’t work on the ground, in large part, in his view, because the government’s implementing them do a poor job of planning.

Normally, I’m somewhat dubious when a PMC starts trashing the public sector but McFate argues fairly convincingly. Plus the experiences of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade provide much evidence to back up his claims. Thus, when DynCorp won the contract to rebuild Liberia’s military in 2004 it was the perfect test case for a PMC to put up or shut up. Happily, for Liberia and the world, DynCorp put up. Put only somewhat flippantly, outsourcing stepped in where government angels feared to tread. According to McFate:

The Liberia program is unique even from the programs in Iraq and Afghanistan in that it was entirely outsourced to the private sector. This was not entirely a bad thing, contrary to some of the dire warnings from skeptics that outsourcing any military function is undesirable. DynCorp’s profit motive drove it to find innovative, efficient, and effective solutions to thorny security problems, and this accounts for some of Liberia’s success today.

On the positive side, for example, the private sector brought a great deal of ingenuity to SSR. In 2004, there were no books, theory, best practices, military doctrine, compendia of lessons learned, or practitioners with significant experience on how to demobilize and rebuild an army. Scholarship was equally unhelpful, as it has always lagged behind practice in DDR and SSR. Owing to this, DynCorp’s team invented new solutions to its specific DDR and SSR problems, resulting in a sui generis program that could serve as On the positive side, for example, the private sector brought a great deal of ingenuity to SSR.

Make no mistake about the magnitude of the challenge DynCorp faced in rebuilding the Liberian military. Although it shared the contract with PAE, DynCorp would:

Perform the bulk of the SSR at both the operational and institutional levels. At the operational level, it would rebuild the AFL from the ground up, which entailed the designing, recruiting, vetting, training, equipping, and fielding of the new force.  At the institutional level, it would also create a new Ministry of Defence and establish systems for personnel management, intelligence, force integration and planning, resource management, communications, information management, public affairs, procurement and acquisition, internal audit, and other ministerial functions.

Given that DDR and SSR programs are frequently carried out by military forces, simply because they are the part of the government best equipped to operate in former war zones, their institutional biases often influence the programs. As militaries are organized to generally battle other militaries they build forces similar to their own. As McFate dryly notes:

One interesting aspect of hiring a private company to conduct SSR rather than the DoD is that DynCorp was not beholden to any country’s military doctrine or textbook solutions. Instead, it could freely mold existing protocols without fear of institutional reprisal. Substantially modifying doctrine to fit the needs of a host nation is a departure from the U.S. practice, which, as recent experience suggests, tends to transpose—wholesale—its own military models onto foreign forces without consideration as to whether they are appropriate or not.

But DynCorp looked at that model and rejected it, because it was irrelevant to Liberia’s needs.

Accordingly, DynCorp abandoned the regular approach to SSR and adopted a novel paradigm when designing the Liberian defense architecture and strategy—”human security”—marking one of the earliest attempts to operationalize this idea.

The human security paradigm is the exact opposite. It best suits the non-Westphalian world of Africa and elsewhere, where states did not develop organically as they did in Europe and North America but rather were invented by cartographers in London, Paris, Berlin, and other colonizing powers of the past. Not surprisingly, this is a world were “irregular” warfare is more regular than “regular” warfare, as nonstate actors fight without regard for the laws of war that regulate interstate conflict.

Owing to the threat assessment, DynCorp believed the human security paradigm would be a more appropriate model for the design and deployment of the AFL than the conventional national security one. Specifically, this meant de-emphasizing traditional missions, like defending national borders with a massive military, and securing development as the unifying concept behind the new AFL.

Human security is a concept first articulated by the United Nations Development Program’s 1994 Human Development Report Clearly, DynCorp’s experience in Liberia has helped position it to win future UN peace operations contracts.

It cannot be emphasized enough that DynCorp acted smartly in Liberia. In Iraq the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army, Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 2, and in so doing helped galvanize an insurgency. Thankfully, DynCorp did not do something similar.

DynCorp consciously framed the demobilization as a retirement, modeled on the U.S. Army’s own protocol, rather than a DDR pay-out to “thugs.” Every day, a unit mustered at the demobilization site to be honored with a formal ceremony replete with protocol, the AFL band, and a congratulatory speech by the Minister of Defence or similar dignitary. Individuals then began the demobilization process, which verified and logged their identity, took an identification picture, and electronically fingerprinted them (see Figure 3). Following this, ex-soldiers received a voucher for payment at a Monrovian bank as well as a demobilization certificate and a card indicating that they were either “demobilized” or “honorably retired” (for those whose service began before Taylor’s takeover). These documents were intended to provide a measure of closure and status to ex-combatants, but also, as official government papers, they represented the state’s reconstitution after a long absence.

McFate notes that, “By treating ex-combatants as soldiers rather than criminals, in 4 months and at a cost of only $15 million, one of the more notorious armies in Africa was completely and safely demobilized, a rare event in African history. DynCorp’s ability to demobilize an army exemplifies what the private military industry can do and perhaps where it is heading within the new neo-medieval order.”

As someone who has frequently been critical of PMC cost-effectiveness claims I have to say that this is cost-effectiveness, par excellence.

How DynCorp specifically went about recruiting, vetting, training and equipping the new Liberian military, and creating the corresponding strategy and institutional support for it was certainly a challenge. It would be for any country, but to do so in a country that suffered through two civil wars in less than two decades borders on the miraculous.

While McFate details DynCorp’s work and success in great detail he is not arrogant enough to claim that this means PMC should be given carte blanche in the future. In a not so veiled recommendation in his concluding section he implicitly says that the client, meaning the U.S. government, need to get its oversight act together; a conclusion which has also been voiced by agencies such as the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (where I used to work). He notes:

Contractors are good if you know how to manage them. DynCorp invested in innovative ideas like human security and created a unique human rights vetting program because it was not beholden to the bureaucracy and was motivated by profit to innovate. However, it may have overstepped its bounds due to poor government oversight on the ground. Harness the power of the private sector but develop the management skills to do so.

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