Anthony Sampson: Mercenaries are unaccountable - which is why governments like to employ them

Parts of the world are looking like 14th-century Europe, when kings had to pay private armies to protect them

Share

As the fighting escalates in Iraq, we have to be more concerned about the use of mercenary armies - oops, I mean private military firms - which have taken over part of the role of the allied forces.

As the fighting escalates in Iraq, we have to be more concerned about the use of mercenary armies - oops, I mean private military firms - which have taken over part of the role of the allied forces.

At a time when the British and American armies are stretched close to their limits, in operations which need to be strictly controlled, are we allowing private armies and contractors too much power? Is war, like so many other industries, gradually being privatised?

It's worth looking back at the development of mercenaries, which have always had a sinister image as "the dogs of war". They came into the limelight nine years ago in Africa, where the weak government in Sierra Leone hired the shadowy British company Sandline to defeat the rebel army - which it achieved in two weeks with the help of helicopter gunships.

Since then British mercenary companies have proliferated through Africa, forming and re-forming and changing their names to baffle investigators, but showing signs of strong financial links with control from London and South Africa. Many of the soldiers are ex-members of the Afrikaner military or police with connections with the old apartheid regime, and a dubious record of civilised behaviour.

The Pretoria government of President Mbeki has effectively disowned them; when earlier this year mercenaries were arrested and imprisoned in Zimbabwe, on their way to mount a coup in Equatorial Guinea, the Zimbabwe government was apparently acting on a tip-off from Pretoria.

Their leader Simon Mann, a well-connected buccaneer from Eton and the Scots Guards - who had been a co-founder of Sandline - is trying to use his influence in London to achieve his release; the outcome may reveal something about how far he enjoys discreet backing from the British Government.

But the role of the mercenary companies has spread far beyond Africa, and for the past year it has been Iraq which has provided by far their biggest opportunity for profits.

Most Western companies employed private security companies, and the American proconsul Paul Bremer was himself protected by guards hired by the American firm Blackwater.

The American mercenaries had a dangerously ambiguous status, or lack of status. Officially the army had no obligation to protect them, yet it felt obliged to come to their rescue when necessary. When four Blackwater soldiers rashly arrived at the dangerous city of Fallujah, and were hideously murdered and mutilated by the Iraqi rebels, the much-publicised atrocity encouraged American marines to take revenge, rampaging into the city centre, and killing hundreds of Iraqis, including many innocent civilians.

Since the interim Iraqi government took over in July, the role of mercenaries has increased rather than diminished, and they received new recognition when a contract worth nearly $300m was signed with Tim Spicer, the head of the British company Aegis - a co-founder with Simon Mann of Sandline (which officially went out of business in April).

Other parts of the world were also becoming happy hunting grounds for private armies, whether in the Middle East, Africa or Central Asia, as big corporations felt more need of protection in the wake of 11 September, which weak governments or failed states could not provide.

Are we regressing to an earlier age, before nation-states had acquired their disciplined armies with a monopoly of force, and both governments and business relied on mercenaries for their survival? Parts of the world are looking like 14th-century Europe, when kings and city-states had to pay private armies to protect them; and the English mercenary Sir John Hawkwood marched his "white company" through the continent, selling his services to popes and potentates in return for short-lived security.

So are we heading towards the privatising of wars, whose outcomes will be decided by whoever can pay most to freebooting soldiers beyond the control of governments?

Of course, the mercenaries themselves see it quite differently. They insist they are responding to the urgent global need for security. And one of them, John Davidson, the founder-manager of Rubicon International, has now launched a spirited defence on the internet.

As a former officer in the British Special Forces, Davidson claims that private firms are continuing their proud tradition in Iraq, "the most dangerous place on the planet today". "It is strange that within a month of leaving the British forces as heroes," he writes, "we are now classed in the media as 'dogs of war' or 'mercenaries making a killing in Iraq'."

Many of the British security teams in Iraq, he insists, have won the hearts and minds of Iraqis, as the American marines could not by the use of force. "The security companies have become the buffer between the military and the locals to great effect."

And he concludes: "I believe the security industry has the most important role in Iraq, and this will become more apparent in the next six months."

Davidson's arguments are quite persuasive, as the American army faces more dangerous confrontations with rebel forces in Iraq today. Both the American and British armies are clearly undermanned for the task, and recruitment becomes increasingly difficult, and mercenaries and contractors can rapidly fill the gap.

Many British diplomats and generals defend the use of mercenaries on wider grounds, and across the world. They can perform peacekeeping jobs which national armies cannot do, protecting both human lives and corporate property in lawless countries which cannot provide their own security.

The rise of private armies has its own obvious logic in a privatised world, where national armies are increasingly undermanned and under growing pressure, and business corporations are setting the pace. And Jack Straw, back in 2002, officially endorsed the "outsourcing" of some military tasks to private companies.

But the hazards are now much more apparent. Many private companies have shown themselves unaccountable to any government, while many mercenaries include men who owe no allegiance to any country, or to any recognised laws. Their unaccountability may be their main attraction to their clients, but it threatens to undermine the basic discipline on which real peacekeeping depends.

When major governments surrender their monopoly of force to mercenaries, in countries where law and order are fragile, they are introducing a new danger to the "war on terrorism". They may see themselves as fighting "unlawful combatants" - as the Americans define the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. But they are recruiting their own unlawful combatants to the struggle, and threatening to extend the areas of chaos which provide the seedbeds of terrorism.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine