Tag Archives: private security firms

What a Bag of Dollars Buys; Afghan Militia,US Special Forces and the CIA

Devgru-bodyguards and Karzai

The decision by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, on February 24th to expel American special forces from the province of Wardak, south-west of the capital, Kabul, has thrown the NATO coalition into confusion. It has also turned attention to these elite but shadowy American units. The government has given the forces two weeks to leave the province, accusing them of complicity in murders and disappearances.

The order was announced at a hastily convened press conference, and the crimes were blamed especially on Afghan irregulars who had been recruited to work alongside the Americans. Mr Karzai, however, has made it clear that he holds America responsible. The government says residents of the province have long complained of the irregulars’ abuses and that it is taking action only after the NATO coalition failed to do so.

Mr Karzai’s expulsion of the special forces throws into question a principal element of the coalition’s strategy. These units increasingly play the lead role in fighting the Taliban, as other forces are shifted into training and advising Afghan troops ahead of the full withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of 2014. Both NATO and Afghan commanders credit raids by American special forces for weakening the Taliban.

Special forces are also training tens of thousands of civilians for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a village-based defence force which has become a central part of the effort to shore up security in rural areas. However many American troops remain in Afghanistan for training after 2014, local commanders are expected to want plenty of special forces alongside them.

Both the raids by special forces and the recruiting of militiamen at the local level have always sat uneasily with Mr Karzai. It was only after much arm-twisting that he was persuaded to accept the idea of the ALP at all. As the deadline nears for the Afghan government to assume all responsibility for the country’s security, the president has wanted to be seen exerting Afghan sovereignty and clearly laying down what NATO can and cannot do in the provinces.

What rankles the government about the allegations in Wardak is the suggestion that the Americans are getting unaccountable Afghans to do their dirty work. Such proxy forces have long existed in Afghanistan and, this time around, date from the earliest stages of the American war, when bags of dollars were handed to local strongmen to buy the services of their militias. At the time, hostility towards the Taliban overrode any unsavoury behaviour. Both American special forces and the CIA have murky histories with such paramilitary groups.

Who stands accused of the crimes in Wardak, and whether there are such American-backed groups there at all, is central to the confusion today. “I genuinely don’t know who is operating there,” says one NATO official. The picture is further muddied because the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway that runs through Wardak is partly secured by another armed force of Afghans known to be working for private-security companies. Whatever crimes were or were not committed in the province, Mr Karzai’s government blames the Americans for creating “parallel groups and structures” of Afghan forces outside the control of the government.

Local leaders from Wardak confirm the abuses took place, but do not know who committed them. The perpetrators sometimes wore uniforms and sometimes not, say locals, who say the men were not part of the Afghan army.Meanwhile America is holding drawn-out negotiations with Mr Karzai over the role and status of American troops who stay beyond 2014. The Afghan announcement about American special forces in Wardak may have something to do with these talks. In previous rounds of negotiations, NATO has sometimes surprised observers by backing down on points which had seemed non-negotiable only a few years earlier. Mr Karzai may now be pressing them to make similar choices about the use of special forces.

Afghanistan: Yankee beards go home, Economist, Mar. 2, 2013, at 42

Private Military Firms and their Bonanzas

The past decade – particularly the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – provided rich pickings for firms providing private armed guards, drivers and other services that would once have been performed by uniformed soldiers.  But as the conflicts that helped create the modern industry wind down, firms are having to adapt to survive. They must also, industry insiders say, work to banish the controversial image of mercenary “dogs of war” that bedevil many firms, particularly in Iraq, Reuters reports. “This industry has always gone up and down,” Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), told Reuters on the sidelines of its annual conference in Washington. “What we’re seeing now is that it is becoming much more mature – and much more responsible.”

The free-for-all atmosphere that pervaded the industry, particularly in the early years of the war in Iraq, insiders say, appears gone for good. A string of high profile incidents – often involving armed private guards firing on sometimes unarmed Iraqis – trashed the reputation of firms such as Blackwater, a Virginia-based firm since renamed several times, as well as the wider industry.  Members of the ISOA – which include some but not all of the major contracting firms as well as smaller players – subscribe to a code of conduct that they say helps identify responsible firms.

Despite these efforts, industry insiders and other observers say quality remains mixed. Some firms providing armed guards for merchant ships passing through the Somali pirate-infested Indian Ocean, for example, only hire elite personnel who have served in the Marines or special forces. Others, however, have a reputation for being less discriminating and for unreliable staff and weapons.  In the aftermath of last month’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, critics have seized on the hiring of a little-known British private security firm now accused of providing inadequate protection at the mission….

The most vulnerable firms, many in industry say, may be those who have relied on ongoing U.S. military work that is now drying up as the Pentagon “Operational Contingency Allowance” – the additional funding earmarked for the wars – tapers off.  At its peak, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated there might have been as many as 260,000 contractors in the two countries.

“At the moment, everyone is looking for work that is not OCA-funded,” one industry executive told Reuters on condition of anonymity, saying he expected an era of mergers and even bankruptcies. “It’s going to be like when the tide goes out at the beach and you suddenly find out who has been naked.”  New Pentagon priorities, many believe, will provide fewer openings for traditional private military contractors. Washington’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region will involve mainly warships or uniformed Marines, with little need for extra hired muscle.  Companies that take a broader approach and also provide logistic, intelligence and other functions, however, could have a much better decade.  “If your definition of a private security contractor is only someone with a gun at a checkpoint in Afghanistan, then yes, you may be seeing a decline,” says David Isenberg, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington.  “But if your definition is of private contractors performing tasks that would once have been done almost exclusively by government and military, it’s a very different picture.”

When it comes to conventional security, many in the industry believe the real growth will come from serving the private sector – particularly the oil, gas and mining industries.  Even with U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the number of government contractors down, some companies say they are finding strong demand from energy firms for protection, particularly around Basra in southern Iraq.  “We are as busy as ever and the need has never been greater,” said Pete Dordal, senior vice president at GardaWorld, a global risk management and security services firm. “I don’t want to say it’s a gold rush, but business is very good.”

Private security firms, insiders say, evacuated the vast majority of the thousands of foreign nationals plucked from Libya as its civil war erupted early last year. Most were contracted by other private firms, although governments also used them heavily. London-based Control Risks told Reuters last year that China hired it directly to fly hundreds of its nationals out by airliner.

Some in the industry believe the number of contractors in Afghanistan could even rise with the planned departure of all U.S. combat troops in 2014, as mining companies exploit largely untapped mineral resources.  It’s a similar picture in Africa, where even in war-torn Somalia, a handful of companies are setting up shop. They often work with local tribes and other groups to safeguard visiting journalists, business representatives and prospectors.  Focusing on finding reliable local staff, some say, may ultimately prove both cheaper and more reliable than foreign hired guns. In Libya, some energy firms long turned to local desert tribes to protect their facilities – a tactic that proved remarkably effective during last year’s civil war after foreign security staff were swiftly withdrawn.

The trick may be to avoid having grandiose ambitions.  A handful of British firms in particular have made millions from providing on-board protection teams for Indian Ocean shipping. But those who have tried to go a step further and start their own private navies – hoping to escort merchant ships for cash – have struggled to find sufficient funding.

Within Somalia some credit the hiring of private contractors with Gulf state money to bolster the Coast Guard of the independent enclave of Puntland as being behind recent drops in pirate attacks. But it proved so controversial that funding was eventually pulled, leaving behind half-trained local fighters that some worry could prove a regional security threat in their own right.

Private contractors are increasingly central to operations such as the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia, performing roles such as bomb disposal, logistics and technical support. ISOA and some experts argued they could do much, much more.  The few dozen foreign contractors from the now-defunct British firm “Executive Outcomes,” together with the hundreds of local fighters they trained, are often credited with turning the tide in Sierra Leone’s 2001 civil war.  But after years of discussions at the United Nations, few of the world’s governments appear enthusiastic about the idea of private security firms becoming the norm.  “In some places, contractors might be more effective than some of the troops from contributing nations,” said Edmond Mulet, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations.  “But the U.N. is simply the sum of its member states and some of them are opposed to the use of contractors in some roles,” he told the conference.

As Iraq and Afghan wars end, private security firms adapt, Reuters, Oct. 22, 2012

Private Security Firms

The Wild West of the Oceans; pirates, private security firms and human rights

Private security teams patrol the decks of around 40% of large vessels in the “high-risk area” that stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Seychelles in the south and the Maldives in the east. When pirates attack, these armed guards respond with flares or warning shots. This usually scares off assailants (or sends them in search of easier prey). If it fails, they fire at an attacking boat’s engine, before finally turning their sights on the pirates. No ship carrying armed guards has so far been hijacked.

Most of the companies providing these guards are British, typically started by entrepreneurial former special-forces types. A four-man team can charge $45,000 for safe passage through the high-risk area. The cost to shipowners is partly offset by savings on insurance.

The idea may seem simple but its legal framework is not. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea a ship’s crew, including guards, must abide by the home laws of a vessel’s flag state. But these vessels ply international waters, meaning that regulation is scant. An array of standards created since 2009 suggests good practice for private security teams, but none is legally binding.

Spurred on by the International Maritime Organization (which will debate the issue at a meeting next month), governments are now trying to write rules for armed guards at sea, such as how they buy and store the lethal tools of their trade. Britain wants a voluntary set of rules in place by the end of 2012, detailing the acceptable use of deadly force and systems for company auditing and accountability. It may suggest and define a “proportional” response to pirate attacks, along with approved weapon types and standards of training. Other countries are making moves too. American law now allows for the self defence of US-flagged ships within tight rules of engagement. India also allows armed guards; Greece is considering a similar step. The Japanese government is pondering a change to its strict laws, which prohibit civilian armed guards on ships.

The United Arab Emirates will this year start allowing armed international teams into its ports. At present most teams use Sri Lanka, Oman or Djibouti for weapons storage between jobs. They run the risk of prosecution if they carry arms in the territorial waters of Yemen and other states. John Bennett, of the Florida-based Maritime Protective Services says some firms play safe by throwing their guns overboard before heading home.

Pressure for new rules has come in part from human-rights organisations. Unknown numbers of Somali pirates have been killed at sea since 2005 as a result of clashes with naval and private protection forces. In at least one incident, security guards killed Somali fishermen, mistaking them for pirates. Such incidents evoke bad memories. The last thing that anyone wants, says Steven Jones, director of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), is a “Blackwater of the sea” (Blackwater, now renamed Academi, is a private security firm which was sued in Iraq after the shooting of 17 civilians. It denies any wrongdoing.)

The new British rules may help to shape those adopted by other countries in future. They emphasise transparency, with the aim of differentiating respectable companies from domestic or international “mavericks”. But complying with them will be voluntary and is likely to involve extra costs. Firms may simply move to territories with less demanding regimes. That could create two tiers in the security industry: one that is respectable and regulated, and one that lives by improvisation, not by the law. A bit like the pirates.

Piracy and private security:Laws and guns, Economist, Apr. 14,2012, at 69