Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Defense: Mercenarism - World's 'Second Oldest' Profession Still in Demand

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Gaddafi has employed African foreign fighters against the opposition since the uprising began - illustrating that the millennia-old profession of mercenarism will continue to thrive as long as its business model remains viable.

By Anna Dunin for ISN Insights

At the same time as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's bloody crackdown against his own people was grabbing international headlines in February, newspapers in Guinea, Nigeria and Ghana were publishing advertisements placed by the Libyan regime that offered would-be mercenaries up to $2,500 per day to help suppress the uprising.

Reports suggest that up to 6,000 foreign fighters traveled to Libya from Sudan, Mali, Chad, Niger, Liberia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, including the 2,500-strong Islamic Pan African Brigade that Gaddafi had trained and supplied with arms over the years. Other reports have mentioned the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco and even Eastern Europe as the fighters' countries of origin. Several Tunisian, Nigerian and Guinean mercenaries have been captured , along with some French-speaking sub-Saharan Africans , whose nationalities were unclear.

A number of captured mercenaries have admitted that they were given orders from Gaddafi's regime to attack demonstrators. Additional reports have suggested that the Israeli arms distribution company Global CST acted as a mercenary recruitment intermediary, offering to provide Gaddafi with 50,000 recruits from Africa. While Gaddafi paid them an average of $2,000 per mercenary per day, Global CST allegedly pays its recruits $100 per day, creating a substantial profit for the company. Despite mounting evidence , the exact numbers and nationalities of the foreign fighters arriving in Libya remain unclear.

The recent events in Libya have brought the longstanding use of mercenaries back into global headlines. Now mostly associated with African conflicts, European rulers relied on foreign fighters for centuries: from the Peloponnesian wars, through the wars of the Middle Ages and the Italian condottieri of the Renaissance, up to the modern French Foreign Legion. Indeed, the sustained popularity of foreign mercenaries in warfare suggests that their utility currently outweighs the associated risks.

The appeal

Hiring foreign fighters for a specific operation, while expensive, is less costly than maintaining a sizeable, permanent national army. Often, mercenaries are better trained and equipped and have more extensive combat experience. Traditionally, African dictators used mercenaries when they distrusted their own generals, fearing a potential coup d'├ętat. If a leader does not trust his own forces, hiring a paid outside unit is a means to ensure loyalty. After two Libyan pilots defected to Malta in February, for example, Qaddafi allegedly hired Serbian and Syrian pilots to carry out aerial assaults on his subjects.

Indeed, loyalty and obedience are perhaps the greatest advantages of hiring mercenaries. They are profit-driven: as long as mercenaries receive remuneration, they remain loyal to their client - providing the other side to the conflict does not offer more. And, while national forces might refuse to carry out particularly controversial orders, such as attacks on civilians, foreign fighters are more likely to follow such directives - especially against civilians who do not share their nationality.

Despite these 'advantages', however, foreign mercenaries are generally employed as a last resort, usually used by a leader desperately seeking to hold onto or extend power.

The risks

Foreign mercenary attacks against a country's civilian population have the potential to cause security force defections out of anger with the regime, as illustrated by the Libyan example. In addition to the potential loss of domestic support, a regime's legitimacy can crumble in the eyes of the international community when mercenaries are used against a civilian population.

Mercenaries have a reputation for being particularly brutal and ruthless, due to the large degree of impunity they enjoy; they are not part of a formal legal unit or organization that can be easily targeted and held accountable for violating the laws of war. Thus, the involvement of foreign fighters can be particularly dangerous for a civilian population, with an increased likelihood that war crimes or crimes against humanity will be perpetrated against them.

The involvement of foreign forces has the potential to prolong fighting and increase the number of casualties. In a conflict with a large disparity between the strengths of two opposing sides, bringing in a mercenary force has the potential to even out the power differential, thereby heightening the intensity of conflict and potentially extending its duration. The use of mercenaries also carries a risk to foreigners who could be mistaken as foreign fighters. For example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported incidents of Libyan hostility toward African refugees suspected of being Gaddafi's mercenaries.

Mercenaries versus PMCs

While sometimes referred to as 'modern-day mercenaries', Private Military Companies (PMCs) are not the same as freelance foreign fighters. They are instead organized business entities composed of former military professionals, not a loose network of freelance veterans providing services usually performed by national police or armed forces. The primary tasks of PMCs include providing operational and logistical support to armies, including intelligence gathering and dissemination, battlefield training and planning and facilitating communications.

PMCs are not legally entitled to use offensive force in a war zone as outlined by the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention, and are required to respect the law of the countries in which they operate. Some of course, like Executive Outcomes (EO), have violated this law, and engaged in civil conflicts such as those in Angola and Sierra Leone. Despite sparking a great deal of controversy, however, PMCs have at times proven to be effective in training and reorganizing national armies; DynCorp is often cited for its work in Croatia during the Yugoslav civil wars, and in post-war Liberia.

While clear differences between PMCs and mercenary forces can be distinguished, ultimately, they both operate in conflict zones where clear oversight is a severe challenge.

Business is business

Despite international laws that ban mercenarism (including UN and OAU Conventions), recent events in Libya show that the profession is alive and well - and will remain so as long as its business model remains successful. Like any business, mercenarism is ruled by the law of supply and demand. Ineffective Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs in post-conflict countries across Africa, such as those in Sierra Leone, Liberia or the Cote d'Ivoire, have left behind large groups of uneducated and unemployed men, willing to return to battle for the right price. As long as authoritarian leaders' demand for a loyal and ruthless force meets the supply of poor but profit-driven young men who have known nothing but war, mercenarism will continue to thrive.


Anna Dunin is an intelligence analyst for a Washington, DC-based private intelligence consultancy. She holds a Master's degree in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London.