Mercenaries or 'contractors'?
Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton
Reviewed by David Isenberg
Sometimes doing a book review is difficult. An author may write informatively and lucidly in one chapter and bomb in the next. A reviewer wants to praise where warranted but also feel compelled to point out its flaws. Trying to strike a balance can be difficult.
Fortunately, that is not a problem here. This book is, in a word, terrific. Anybody who is remotely interested in the world of private security contractors should run, not walk, to the bookstore and buy this book immediately. It is going to be the gold standard on private military and security companies for years to come.
That being said, a little background is in order. For years now the media have increasingly publicized what is usually described in sensationalistic purple prose as the murky world of corporate mercenaries. While such firms started gaining attention back in the early 1990s with the exploits of, for example, the now-defunct South African-based Executive Outcomes, which did actual combat operations in Angola and Sierra Leone, and gained more publicity with the training contracts of MPRI in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, the war in Iraq propelled the industry to the top of the media and pop-culture food chain. Such firms as Blackwater Security, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp are now conversational staples.
And yet while there have been numerous articles in the periodical press and even many academic books, one of which - Peter Singer's Corporate Warriors - even achieved a measure of popular acclaim when it was published in 2003, they all lacked one key ingredient essential to a real understanding of this world. And that is culture. The key to really understanding any society is to understand its culture. And, as anthropologists have long understood, true cultural understanding comes only from living in the midst of it.
While some people, usually foreign or war correspondents, have limited exposure to this world, very few have the patience, thoughtfulness, humor, objectivity, curiosity, broad historical perspective, knowledge of geopolitics, or eye for detail, not to mention a nonchalant, breezy, blunt but respectful style of writing that is so entertaining that at times it will leave you laughing so hard you will be gasping for air.
It is an intended tribute to the author that very few people in the world could have written a book this witty and informative aside from him. That naturally raises the question: Just who is Robert Young Pelton? Originally from Canada, he moved to the US to make his fortune, which he did with enough success that one day he decided to get out of it and start traveling to the world's hot spots and war zones as a neutral observer and chronicler of the truth, which is never an easy thing to ascertain.
As an author Pelton is best known for his classic work The World's Most Dangerous Places, which is sort of an underground Fodor's guide to surviving war zones and other assorted mean, nasty and dangerous places, from Grozny to Baghdad.
Licensed to Kill is divided into three sections, comprising 12 chapters. Some of these have been news stories in their own right
The first is about the exploits of legendary US Special Forces veteran and Central Intelligence Agency contractor Billy Waugh who, after September 11, 2001, was asked by the CIA to recruit contractors to operate in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and his forces. It was here that Blackwater got its first CIA contract, to bolster personal-protection teams for CIA officers.
It is here that one appreciates Pelton's eye for detail - details that are always generalized about in the mainstream press, but never clearly explained. Such as, what are security contractors actually paid? What is the difference between Tier 1, 2, 3 and 4 operators? What the heck is a tier? All these questions get answered.
It bears remembering, because this is not an academic work with hundreds of endnotes, that this is an extremely well-researched book. Pelton has gained access to an enormous amount of insider information that normally never sees the light of the day. Researchers could undoubtedly spend years happily sifting though all the material he has accumulated.
One gets the answers to these questions only by hanging out with a wide variety of people where they live and work over the years. And while Pelton has spent the past three years sitting down with security contractors on different continents, often while they were on the job, whether doing convoy runs from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the airport or roaming the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it is clear that his prior years touring the world's killing zones have conferred on him a special sort of street credibility that has given him a special access to a tribe that does not normally talk to outsiders.
Chapter 2 is fittingly titled "Edge of the Empire", because it details his travels with a CIA contractor, one of those engaged in a truly "murky" shadow war against the al-Qaeda forces still present in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
Chapter 3 ends the empire section by recounting the day in the life of a private security detail responsible for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Simply by showing how utterly dependent Karzai is on foreigners for his survival, Pelton makes the point that private security contractors truly can be influential tools of US foreign policy.
The next section takes you to Iraq, where he covers both the well-known ambush of Blackwater contractors at Fallujah and the vastly under-covered stories of Blackwater contractors who engaged in combat at al-Kut and al-Najaf.
This is followed by a chapter on the training and selection process that Triple Canopy, a major security contractor, puts candidates though at its facility in the US state of Arkansas. The same chapter also describes the Blackwater training facility in North Carolina. As Blackwater is the alpha male of the US private security contractor world, no description of the world would be complete without it.
Chapter 8 describes making the run on the road (Route Irish) between the Green Zone and the airport in Baghdad. For a long time this was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. For many making this trip, death was not a possibility but an inevitability. Contractors who made this run took big hits, which makes for some interesting psychology and motivation. As Pelton notes, "The business end of warfare requires a mercenary attitude. Private security has no ideology, no homeland, no flag. There is no God and country. There is only the paycheck."
Chapter 9 starts the last section, the one dealing with various rogues and tycoons. While the vast majority of security contractors do exactly what they sign up for without complaint, their world is not without opportunists. One of the better known, now serving a sentence in an Afghan prison for illegally running his own prison and torturing its prisoners, is Jonathan "Jack" Keith Idema. The chapter on Idema is priceless, and it is worth buying the book just for that. It also serves as a warning that there is a downside to relying too heavily on the private sector for traditional military tasks, as it leaves the door wide open for the unscrupulous.
But if Idema represents the pond-scum side of the private security world, the following chapter, which explores the creation of Executive Outcomes and Sandline, two private military firms that were prominent in the 1990s and helped propel the industry into public prominence, offers a fascinating look into that rarified world where high finance and venture capital, old boys' networks, multinational corporations, foreign policy, the legacies of colonial empires, and public relations intersect. It is surprising to realize what a small world it really is. It provides an invaluable perspective for better understanding an industry that is attempting to "find the sweet spot - the balance between naked aggression and passive peacekeeping - the neo-mercenary", as Pelton puts it.
Chapter 11 details both the past and the plans of Blackwater Security. Blackwater is not only one of the biggest players in the private-military world today, it is also one of the most ambitious, spinning off new business divisions left, right and center. When Blackwater speaks, people listen. One example was this year when one of its officials said that Blackwater was prepared to provide its own brigade-sized private army for hire to support United Nations peacekeeping efforts like the one in Darfur.
The last chapter deals with the attempted overthrow in 2004 of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea, a small, poor country in West Africa but one that has enormous oil reserves. The attempt put together by Simon Mann, a former soldier in Britain's Special Air Service and ex-employee of South Africa's Executive Outcomes, was publicly presented as an attempt to overthrow a violent dictator but in reality was an attempt, albeit clumsily organized, to seize control of its oil. The lesson of this chapter is sobering. Many proponents of private military and security contractors argue that they should be allowed to be all that they can be; that they are capable of greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness than regular military forces, and since they are motivated by profit rather than ideology, they are freer to intervene in a conflict that a regular state would ignore as it would be irrelevant to their national interest.
But as Pelton notes, "If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that once the security business is unhitched from established corporate or government clients, its proponents can quickly turn it into the insecurity business."
Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the international system has developed a vacuum. Private military and security contractors have emerged in increasing numbers to help fill this void. Up to now, nobody has been sure exactly what they do or how they work. But now, thanks to Pelton, an enormous number of dots have been connected.
While some may still not have an interest in understanding the brave new world of private military and security contracting, they can no longer claim they lack the means. If the US intelligence establishment could connect dots as well as Pelton, Osama bin Laden would have been captured years ago.
Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror by Robert Young Pelton. Crown Publishers, September 2006. ISBN: 1400097819. Price US$24, 358 pages.
David Isenberg is a senior research analyst at the British American Security Information Council, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, Washington. These views are his own.
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