From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

The Business of War / Iraq’s Mercenary King

As a former C.I.A. agent, the author knows how mercenaries work: in
the shadows. But how did a notorious former British officer, Tim
Spicer, come to coordinate the second-largest army in Iraq-the tens of
thousands of private security contractors?

by Robert Baer April 2007

Last spring, in Los Angeles, I met with a producer and a screenwriter
who were trolling for a good story to turn into a movie-specifically,
a story about a pair of colorful adventurers, maybe mercenaries, who
get into serious trouble seeking a fortune in Africa. I wasn’t much
help. I had spent little time in Africa-only a couple of brief trips
to Nigeria and Liberia during my time in the C.I.A. But I promised
them I’d ask around when I got to London, a city with more colorful
adventurers per block than anywhere else in the world.

I knew my share of them: rogue oil traders, art forgers, exiled
presidents, disgraced journalists, arms dealers. There was also the
Jordanian prince who had once offered to smuggle me into Ramadi, in
Iraq’s anarchic Anbar Province, in exchange for 100 sheep. People like
these are pretty much the currency of C.I.A. agents.

In London, the consensus was that if I wanted a good African yarn I
needed to talk to Tim Spicer. He knew or could get to every mercenary,
adventurer, or promoter who had ever cast a shadow on that continent.

I knew who Spicer was. He’d popped up on the C.I.A.’s radar after he
retired from the British Army and went to work, in 1996, as the C.E.O.
of Sandline International, a private military company offering
“operational support” to “legitimate governments.” A year later Spicer
was in Papua New Guinea, where he fielded a mercenary army for the
government in order to protect a multi-national copper-mining company.
After Spicer was expelled, he moved on to Sierra Leone, this time
helping to ship arms to coup plotters. Spicer’s name resurfaced in
2004 in connection with a putsch aimed at Equatorial Guinea, allegedly
led by Simon Mann, his friend, former army colleague, and onetime
business associate. Though questioned by British officials, Spicer was
not implicated in the incident.

But then, somehow, two months later, Spicer’s company, known as Aegis
Defence Services, landed a $293 million Pentagon contract to
coordinate security for reconstruction projects, as well as support
for other private military companies, in Iraq. This effectively put
him in command of the second-largest foreign armed force in the country
-behind America’s but ahead of Britain’s. These men aren’t officially
part of the Coalition of the Willing, because they’re all paid
contractors-the Coalition of the Billing, you might call it-but
they’re a crucial part of the coalition’s forces nonetheless.

The atrium of Spicer’s slick, modern building, near Victoria Station,
drinks light. The polished floors, smoked glass, silent elevators, and
polite, efficient receptionist put you in mind more of an A-list
Hollywood production company than of the lair of a mercenary and arms
dealer. I thought I knew what Spicer was after: to clean up his past,
achieve respectability.

Still fit and agile at 54, Spicer stood up behind his desk and walked
across the office to shake my hand. The lime cardigan sweater, a desk
piled with files and books, the French bulldog asleep in the corner-it
all proclaimed that Spicer hadn’t quite settled into his new role as a
C.E.O. He’s a field man at heart, more comfortable on the front lines
of some war-at the “sharp end,” as he puts it.

Spicer liked the idea of a movie about Africa. He mentioned the names
of a couple of friends, old Africa hands, whose stories might
contribute the spine of a plot. Most of them lived in South Africa. He
proposed half a dozen locations where a pair of adventurers could get
into particularly serious trouble, from the Congo to Mali. I suspected
that talking about Hollywood was a welcome diversion for Spicer, given
how badly things were going in Iraq.

Spicer and I had a lot in common. We had both spent much of our lives
in the back of beyond, serving governments that preferred not to have
to acknowledge us. We both left government service at a relatively
young age and were tempted back into the same shadowy world we had
come from, trying to sell a set of skills that weren’t especially
useful anywhere else.

We talked a little about spy fiction, agreeing that other than le
Carré the genre was thin. I happened to have with me a copy of John
Banville’s The Untouchable, a fine novel loosely based on the
Cambridge Five spy ring. Spicer copied down the title. He spent his
life on planes these days and had a lot of time to read.

As I walked back to Victoria Station, I couldn’t help wondering how
Spicer had ascended so quickly from notorious mercenary to corporate
titan. What had he done to wangle that fat Iraq contract from the
Pentagon? Serving 20 years with the British military in the toughest
parts of the world was certainly one qualification. So was being
smart, connected, and personable. But how had he overcome the taint of
Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea, two scandals indelibly attached to
his name? Apparently the Pentagon had decided that an Africa hand
could do in Iraq what the American military couldn’t: subdue the most
xenophobic and violent people in the Middle East. But that was the
problem. Iraq isn’t Africa. Iraqis shoot back.

Black Death

Frankly, I have always had my doubts about private military
contractors. A few days after Baghdad fell, in 2003, I was in Iraq
working as an adviser to ABC News. It was a time when Iraq was still
wide open and you could pretty much go where you wanted to. I
persuaded ABC to send me to Awjah, Saddam Hussein’s natal village, a
few miles south of Tikrit. Awjah was where Saddam drew his inner
circle from (and it is where he is buried). It was his refuge when
things were going badly. I thought Awjah’s reaction to Saddam’s fall
would be a good story.

ABC arranged for a Suburban and a driver. Although I didn’t see the
need-I speak Arabic and had worked in Iraq before-ABC also insisted
that a security escort go with me. The escort turned out to be a
former British military officer. He was a pleasant enough fellow, but
he didn’t speak Arabic and had been in the country only a week.

Except for the occasional armor column moving north, there was almost
no traffic on the main Baghdad-Tikrit road. Every once in a while, a
low-flying F-16 shook the car. At the intersection with the road to
Awjah we stopped and asked an army patrol if it was safe to drive into
the village. The soldier didn’t know; the army had bypassed Awjah. We
would be on our own.

By the time we came around a bend and saw the roadblock manned by half
a dozen armed men in kaffiyehs, it was too late to turn back. The
driver, a Shiite, was in a cold sweat. Just the name Awjah struck fear
in him-it was the heart of Sunni country, the monster’s lair.

One of the men stuck a shotgun in the driver’s face and asked who the
hell we were. You could see these people wanted blood. It wasn’t a
surprise. They probably were all related to Saddam. The U.S. had just
deposed the man who had kept them safe and prosperous for the last 35
years. Our British security escort wondered if it wouldn’t be a good
idea to show them our Jordanian press cards. No: that would actually
be a very bad idea. The cards would identify us as Americans.

Instead, I stuck my head out the window and yelled in Arabic, “We’re
French. It’s not our damned war.” The man lowered his shotgun and let
us pass.

That benign little ruse would do no good at all today; the situation
is too far gone. Now anyone with the misfortune to have business
outside the Green Zone travels in an armored car with heavily armed
private military escorts. One of their tactics has been to shoot first
and ask questions later, and Iraqis have referred to some of these
contractors as “black death.” Some of them have been accused of
shooting Iraqis for sport.

In November of 2005 a disgruntled Aegis ex-employee posted a so-called
“trophy video” on the Internet depicting Aegis contractors-Tim
Spicer’s men-shooting at Iraqis in civilian cars. In one sequence, the
Aegis team opens fire with an automatic weapon at an approaching
silver Mercedes. The Mercedes rams a taxi, sending the taxi’s
occupants running. In another sequence, an Aegis employee fires at a
white sedan, running it off the road. Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train”
provides the soundtrack. Aegis subsequently conducted an investigation
and concluded that the actions represented “legitimate operations”
undertaken in compliance with the rules of engagement. Aegis argued
further that the video was “taken out of context” and noted that there
was no evidence that civilians had been killed. The Pentagon looked
into the video and declined to take further steps.

According to a February 2006 Government Accountability Office report,
there were approximately 48,000 private military contractors in Iraq,
employed by 181 different companies. There may now be many more. These
are the kinds of people Tim Spicer and Aegis are supposed to
coordinate. The bulk of the military contractors are American and
British, with a sprinkling of other nationalities. Formal oversight is
lax, to put it mildly. Many are retired from elite units such as the
British Special Air Service or the U.S. Special Forces. According to a
report in The Economist, a former British official who now heads a
trade association for private military companies estimates that
mercenaries are Britain’s largest export to Iraq. Not food, medicine,
or construction material-mercenaries.

No one planned for a private army of this size. Like most things in
the Iraq war, it just happened. After the Iraq National Museum was
looted, in April of 2003, and even four months later, after the U.N.
headquarters was destroyed by a car bomb, the Pentagon assumed it was
dealing with garden-variety crime and terrorism-nothing a good whiff
of grapeshot couldn’t quell. With U.S. forces stretched thin, why not
let private military contractors deal with routine security? They
could protect the coalition offices, the supply shipments, the
embassies, and also the reconstruction teams, the journalists, the
U.N. workers, and the aid organizations. After all, guns for hire in
Afghanistan had been keeping Hamid Karzai alive.

As the security situation deteriorated and the insurgency became more
sophisticated, the contractors were forced to adapt, operating as
small military units, carrying automatic weapons and rocket launchers,
and traveling in convoys of heavily armored S.U.V.’s. Their tactics
included driving at 90 miles an hour or more and shooting at any
vehicle that appeared to be a threat. In some cases, military
contractors fought pitched battles. Today, when they get in trouble,
contractors can call on help in the form of military air support or a
quick-reaction force.

Who are these contractors? Watch the passengers in Dubai waiting for
flights to Kabul and Baghdad and you’ll get an idea. Half of them are
fortysomething, a little paunchy, their hair thinning. They haven’t
done a pull-up or run an obstacle course in 20 years. You have to
suspect that many are divorced and paying alimony, child support, and
mortgages on houses they don’t live in. The other half, in their late
20s and early 30s, have been enticed into leaving the military early,
quadrupling their salaries by entering the private sector. They bulge
out of their T-shirts, bang knuckles, shoulder-bump. They can’t wait
to get into the action.

The mercenaries crowd the duty-free counters buying boxes of Cuban
Cohiba cigars and bottles of Jack Daniel’s-nights on mortar watch can
be very long. There’s no doubt they can afford it. Men with service in
an elite military unit have been known to make up to $1,500 a day.
More typically a Western military contractor will earn $180,000 a
year. Depending on the contract, benefits can include a hundred days
of leave, kidnapping insurance, health insurance, and life insurance.

Iraq is not exactly a place you’d want to call home, but after a tough
day on Baghdad’s bloody streets there’s always the Green Zone, an air-
conditioned trailer, a Whopper, and an iced latte. Other than the very
real threat of getting killed, the only cloud on the horizon is having
your job outsourced. As private security companies have learned how to
do business in Iraq, they also have figured out how to reduce costs,
often by hiring less expensive help. Chileans, Filipinos, Nepalese,
and Bosnians come a lot cheaper. Almost three dozen former Colombian
soldiers are suing Blackwater USA, one of the largest private military
companies in Iraq, for breach of contract. According to the
Colombians, Blackwater at the last minute reduced their rate of pay to
$34 a day. It’s virtually slave labor compared with what a Brit or an
American gets.

Spicer of Arabia

If you look at Tim Spicer’s military career and his subsequent years
as a mercenary, you won’t be surprised that he has thrived in Iraq’s
Mad Max world of military contractors and easy money.

Born in 1952 in Aldershot, England, Spicer followed his father into
the army, attending Sandhurst and then joining the Scots Guards. He
applied to the S.A.S., Britain’s elite commando force, but failed the
selection course. Spicer saw his first combat in 1982, when he was
pulled off guard duty at the Tower of London and sent to the Falkland
Islands. He took part in the Battle of Mount Tumbledown, which led to
the capture of Stanley, the capital; he likes to play up his
sangfroid, recounting how before the battle he had hoped to enjoy a
good cigar (unfortunately the cigar had been damaged). Spicer would
serve in two other foreign wars, with British forces in the 1991 Gulf
War and with the U.N. in Bosnia.

During a posting in Northern Ireland in 1992, Spicer experienced his
first taste of public controversy when two soldiers under his command
shot an unarmed teenage father of two in the back, killing him. The
soldiers were tried, convicted of murder, and imprisoned for life.
However, as part of a murky deal at the time of the 1998 Good Friday
Agreement, the soldiers were released. Spicer successfully argued for
their return to their unit. In November 2006 the mother of the
murdered teenager threatened to explore legal action against the
British government unless Spicer’s company was barred from other
British-government contracts in war zones.

Spicer retired from the army in 1995, soon enough hanging out his
shingle as a gun for hire, continuing a long tradition of British
military officers who return to the colonies to make their fortune, or
at least to compensate for a lean retirement. His friend Simon Mann
introduced Spicer to Tony Buckingham, another former British military
officer, with whom Mann had founded a security consultancy firm called
Executive Outcomes in the early 1990s. According to Spicer’s
autobiography, upon meeting, Buckingham asked Spicer if he had any
interest in setting up what would later become known as a private
military company.

A year later, in 1996, with Buckingham’s backing, Spicer started
Sandline International, advertising its services as “special forces
rapid reaction.” The exact relationship between Sandline and Executive
Outcomes has been unclear in press accounts, but Spicer has reportedly
admitted that they were “closely linked.” Sandline’s first contract,
in 1997, was with the government of Papua New Guinea, which wanted a
mercenary force to protect a copper mine in Bougainville, in a
rebellious part of the country. The deal fell apart when the P.N.G.
Army found out that Sandline was being paid $36 million for a job the
army thought it should be doing. The government was overthrown in a
coup, and Spicer was arrested and brought before a military inquiry.
He was eventually released and successfully sued Papua New Guinea for
moneys owed.

With notoriety apparently not an impediment, in 1998 Spicer landed
another contract involving Sierra Leone, this time helping ship 30
tons of Bulgarian arms to forces backing Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the
president in exile. At the time, Sierra Leone was under a U.N.
embargo. When Spicer’s activities became public, the “Arms-to-Africa”
scandal reverberated through British politics, implicating Tony
Blair’s government. Spicer claimed to have told certain British
officials all along the way about the arms shipment, allowing him to
make the case later that there had been implicit British-government

One thing you notice from his career is that Spicer has a flair for
self-promotion, a skill he says he started to pick up by observing the
press during the Vietnam War. After the Gulf War, Spicer served as
military aide to the former British commander General Sir Peter de la
Billière. Spicer reportedly persuaded British Airways to comp tickets
on the Concorde for de la Billière, himself, and their wives to attend
the postwar parade in New York. In Bosnia he served as the press
attaché to General Sir Michael Rose, the commander of U.N. forces.
Spicer is openly fascinated by Lawrence of Arabia, once pausing with
an interviewer in front of Lawrence’s motorcycle, in the Imperial War

In an attempt to burnish his reputation, Spicer paid a publicist, Sara
Pearson, to arrange for his autobiography to be ghostwritten. Though
largely ignored, An Unorthodox Soldier (1999) gave Spicer a platform
to make the case that in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone he was
working for legitimate governments. Companies like his, he argued, do
have a place in the modern comity of nations. Spicer also made clear
what he thinks of people who disparage men like himself but have never
seen a shot fired in anger: “the gutless, the boring and the useless
who pontificate and cower…. I feel sorry for them-they’ve never been
to the edge and looked over. They’d be better off if they did.”

Spicer doesn’t like the term “mercenary” or “gun for hire,” picturing
himself rather as a 19th-century British adventurer, fighting on the
side of civilization. There’s more than a little of Flashman in
Spicer. He cultivates a playboy image, driving an Aston Martin, dating
beautiful women, and living in a mansion in South London. His annual
compensation at Aegis has been estimated to be as high as $20 million.
At the inquiry in Papua New Guinea, he was seen carrying what appeared
to be a biography of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. But
Spicer has said that in fact under the dust jacket was a biography of
General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese Communist who masterminded the
siege of Dien Bien Phu. One of Aegis’s investors is Spicer’s friend
the novelist Frederick Forsyth, who wrote the classic mercenary novel
The Dogs of War. You pick it up, read a few pages, and know exactly
where it’s going. The mercenaries are all intelligent and reserved,
with square jaws and chiseled features. They’ve won the hard-earned
respect of the natives and are prepared to give up their lives for
African rebels who seek only to restore democracy and obtain a fair
price for their countries’ mineral wealth.

By 2000, the military-security business was in the doldrums. An
unsettling amount of peace had broken out around the world, and the
demand for mercenaries fell off sharply. For the next few years,
Spicer’s business activities seem to have been in some flux. A rough
chronology can be ascertained from press accounts. (Spicer’s company
would not comment.) Spicer left Sandline in late 1999, and the next
year launched Crisis and Risk Management. In 2001 he changed the
company’s name to Strategic Consulting International, and also set up
a partner firm specializing in anti-piracy consulting, called Trident
Maritime. In 2002, Spicer established Aegis Defence Services, which
around the beginning of the Iraq war was consulting for the Disney
Cruise Line. As Aegis grew, Spicer brought on a number of retired
British generals, including Major General Jeremy Phipps, who had led
the S.A.S. rescue of the Iranian Embassy hostages in London, in 1980,
and Field Marshal Lord Inge, a former chief of the Defence Staff. He
also brought on Ronald Reagan’s former national-security adviser
Robert McFarlane, best known for his involvement in the Iran-contra

After U.S. forces took Baghdad, in April of 2003, Aegis, like every
other private military company in the world, set out to elbow its way
in. The pot of gold was the $18.4 billion reconstruction fund. And
that money was in all likelihood just the beginning. If Iraq could be
stabilized, there was the prospect of an oil boom such as the world
had rarely seen.

Two things happened which, together, led to Spicer’s big break. The
first occurred in March of 2004, when four Blackwater contractors were
ambushed and murdered in Fallujah. The Pentagon knew it couldn’t
dispense with military contractors, but it now had leverage to make
them play by the military’s rules. Henceforward, contractors would
keep the military informed of their movements. They would also carry
transponders, allowing the military to locate them in an emergency.
What the Pentagon needed was a single military contractor to manage
the new regime.

Spicer saw an opportunity after former colleague and British Army
brigadier general Tony Hunter-Choat became the head of security for
the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Program Management Office-the
office that set out the terms for what would become the Aegis
contract. Hunter-Choat and Spicer had served together in Bosnia. And,
like Spicer, Hunter-Choat had had a colorful military career,
including fighting with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria in bygone
days. Leading up to the Iraq war, Hunter-Choat provided personal
security for the Aga Khan. Hunter-Choat’s deputy, James Ellery,
another former British general, now sits on the Aegis board.

In May of 2004 the contract for coordinating private military
companies in Iraq was awarded to Aegis, which managed to beat out five
other corporate bidders. One of the competitors, DynCorp
International, protested, arguing that Aegis’s bid had been more than
$80 million higher than DynCorp’s. The protest went nowhere.

Tim Spicer was now a big fish in a big pond. Aside from running a new
Reconstruction Operations Center-a war room that tracks and
coordinates security contractors moving around Iraq-and six satellite
offices, Aegis also set up 75 security teams, and it serves as an
information clearinghouse for security contractors. Aegis decides who
can go where in Iraq. If a security detail is ambushed, Aegis
coordinates with the military to call in air attacks and ground
support. Apparently to cement his new status as the primus inter pares
of Iraqi security companies, Spicer set up the Aegis Foundation, to
deliver “low-cost, high-impact community development projects to
people who live in, or have suffered from, global conflict areas”-a
private humanitarian-relief fund. The message, one supposes, is that
Aegis is not in Iraq just for the money.

Typically, Spicer also reached out to the press, making the case that
Aegis was not really a mercenary army. In October of 2005 he led Jon
Swain, of the London Sunday Times, on a tour of Aegis operations in
Iraq. “We are not trying to fight a war,” he told Swain. “There are
others equipped and paid to do that. We can fight if necessary, but
our whole ethos if we are attacked is to return fire and back off. We
are not war-fighting people. If we are escorting a client, our job is
to run.”

“Those Were the Days”

The scramble into Iraq has led to the recruiting of hired guns who
definitely shouldn’t be there. Last December a small caravan of what
looked to be Western mercenaries pulled up to a jail inside the Green
Zone and sprang one of the prisoners, a former Cabinet minister
accused of misusing about $2 billion. The Iraqi ex-minister also
happened to be an American citizen.

Finding the right personnel can pose a problem. Hart Security, a
private military company with roots in South Africa, recruited many of
its contractors from the ranks of the apartheid-era South African
army, among the most ruthless counter-insurgency forces ever known.
One of Hart’s men was Gray Branfield, a former covert South African
operative who spent years assassinating leaders of the African
National Congress. After Branfield was killed, in Kut during the 2004
uprising of the Mahdi Army, and his history became public, Hart
Security said it had been unaware of his past. When I queried the
company about Branfield recently, a spokesperson explained that he had
been hired “through a subcontractor.”

The private military company Erinys also had a South Africa problem.
In 2004 an Erinys subcontractor, François Strydom, was killed by Iraqi
insurgents. It turned out that Strydom was a former member of the
notorious Koevoet, an arm of apartheid South Africa’s counter-
insurgency campaign in what is now Namibia. There have been press
reports of a link between Erinys Iraq and Ahmad Chalabi (the onetime
head of the Iraqi National Congress, which was a conduit for the
fabricated intelligence used to justify the Iraq war), which both
Erinys Iraq and Chalabi deny. After securing an $80 million contract
to guard Iraq’s oil infrastructure in 2003, Erinys did hire many of
the soldiers from Chalabi’s U.S.-trained Free Iraqi Forces as guards.
Chalabi himself eventually became acting oil minister. He was probably
not the best custodian of Iraq’s national treasure. (Among other
things, in 1992 he had been convicted in Jordan of defrauding the
country’s Petra Bank of at least $30 million.) His foot soldiers were
not all that trustworthy, either. When I was in Iraq with Chalabi in
the mid-1990s, he was trying to sell his army to Washington as an
insurgent force that, properly equipped, could one day march on
Baghdad. It was nonsense. When the Kurds took on Saddam’s V Corps
north of Kirkuk in March of 1995, overrunning three Iraqi divisions,
Chalabi’s men sat out the fighting.

I wasn’t surprised that Chalabi’s army never morphed into Delta Force.
An F.B.I. official recently back from Iraq told me that agents
billeted next to Chalabi’s mercenaries (now no longer employed by
Erinys Iraq) had had a real problem with them. They were stealing
everything, from F.B.I. computers to batteries for helicopters.

In an odd but lethal twist, it came out last November that the rogue
K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko had visited the London office of
Erinys shortly before his death, by means of radiation poisoning,
leaving behind traces of polonium 210.

Step anywhere inside the world of private military companies and
you’re suddenly in a demimonde where everything seems connected to
everything else. When retired general Jay Garner arrived in Iraq in
April of 2003 to become the country’s civilian administrator, he hired
two former South African commandos as part of his security detail.
They were known to Garner only as Lion and Louwtjie, and they worked
for a company called Meteoric Tactical Solutions. (Where do they get
these names?) After Garner was replaced by Paul Bremer, the two
commandos went to work for Bernard Kerik, the former New York police
commissioner, whom Bremer had brought in to create an Iraqi police
force. Under a $600,000 contract, Meteoric agreed to provide Kerik’s
protection and to help train the police.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in March of 2004, Lion and
Louwtjie were arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, along with Tim Spicer’s
friend and associate Simon Mann. They had been preparing to collect 61
Kalashnikov rifles, 45,000 rounds of ammunition, and 150 grenades, and
then to fly it all, together with 65 mercenaries, into Equatorial
Guinea and overthrow the government.

Equatorial Guinea, on the Bight of Biafra, is run by Teodoro Obiang
Nguema Mbasogo, one of the most corrupt and bizarre leaders in the
world. He has been accused of eating his opponents. To be sure, his
predecessor and uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, was no better. In
1975, after a failed coup attempt, the elder Nguema had his Moroccan
palace guards shoot 150 accused conspirators in a soccer stadium,
while the palace band played “Those Were the Days.” The country’s
location in the armpit of Africa is all too apt. But among a certain
stratum of operatives, Equatorial Guinea has long represented a kind
of unholy grail-the subject of wistful, late-night “What if?”
conversations. The idea of overthrowing the government there is
tempting for two reasons. First, on a per capita basis Equatorial
Guinea produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. Second, Equatorial Guinea
has no military to speak of-nothing a lightly armed mercenary force
couldn’t take care of. Unfortunately for Lion and Louwtjie, the coup
plans were an open secret, and South Africa tipped off Nguema just as
the coup got under way.

When Garner was asked in an NPR interview about Lion and Louwtjie’s
arrest, he said he didn’t see the significance. “Did it surprise me?
No, because the guys are in that kind of work, and they’re tough
guys.” Garner went on to compare fighting the Iraq war to playing
football. “It was a game of audibles,” he said. “And every day you
walked up to the line of scrimmage there and you looked down to see
what was across the line of scrimmage. You called a few audibles and
changed it.”

Whose Side Are They On?

It’s easy to imagine how a young man in Fallujah, where the
unemployment rate is now perhaps 70 percent, views private military
contractors. They arrive in the form of an armored GMC Suburban, with
smoked windows, bearing down at high speed. The closest thing to a
visible human being is the turret gunner. But in his Kevlar helmet and
blue-mirrored wraparound Oakleys, the gunner doesn’t seem all that
human. The young Iraqi knows that the gunner makes more money in a
year than he will in a lifetime, that he is effectively immune from
prosecution, and that he won’t hesitate to shoot if people don’t get
out of the way fast enough.

One of the first things on the new Democratic agenda in Congress will
be to get a grip on military contractors. The question is: How tight
will that grip be? A five-word change in a federal provision, slipped
into recent Pentagon legislation, has the effect of bringing
contractors for the first time under the Uniform Code of Military
Justice. (Up to now, as one industry newsletter has noted, “not one
contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged
with any crime.”) We’ll see what happens. Private military companies-
companies providing security in the field-make up a $30-billion-a-year
industry globally, and with all the lobbying clout that comes from
that kind of money, getting any kind of grip won’t be easy. And the
mercenaries have many friends, who move in and out of government. The
current deputy director of the C.I.A., Steve Kappes, came from
ArmorGroup, a private military company that has security contracts in
Iraq. Before Kappes was at ArmorGroup, he was at the C.I.A. Cofer
Black, a former counterterrorism chief at the C.I.A. and then the
coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, with
ambassadorial rank, left to become the vice-chairman of Blackwater,
which does much of its business in Iraq. The pieces all fit a little
too snugly.

Iraq will wind down one day, and America and Britain will pull out.
Tim Spicer talks bravely about how private military contractors will
stay and finish the job, but Aegis and the other companies won’t in
fact be running the show. Some will be racing the troops to the
Kuwaiti or Jordanian border. Others, especially in the relatively
stable North and South, will stay on, living off the oil industry and
worming their way into local business opportunities, not all of them
on the sunny side of the street. Spicer and his caste of ex-soldiers
turned mercenaries will never be out of work. There will always be
wars in obscure places, where we won’t or can’t send our own soldiers,
either because the military is too small or the political fallout is
too large. You really want to do something about places like Rwanda
and Darfur? Who are you going to call?

Last year Cofer Black addressed a convention of mercenaries in Jordan,
and he floated a plan to create a full-size Blackwater brigade, ready
to be deployed virtually anywhere, for a price. “It’s an intriguing,
good idea from a practical standpoint because we’re low-cost and
fast,” Black explained. “The issue is: Who’s going to let us play on
their team?”

{Robert Baer is a former C.I.A. officer. His most recent book is Blow
the House Down, a novel.}

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