Friday, December 02, 2011

Defense: Contractors to the Congo

Source: ISN

Contractors to the Congo

While security and defense contracting in Africa is nothing new, the awarding of another multi-million dollar contract by the US State Department to a controversial private security operation is perhaps indicative of just how thinly stretched the US military is becoming. This does not bode well for either oversight or accountability.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Insights

From the outsourcing of security functions to widespread mercenary activity, contracting on the African continent is nothing new. For decades the continent has been a playground for private third parties involved in everything from the training of militaries to the toppling of governments, to the legitimate and illicit arms trades. That an impressive volume of literature and documentary evidence exists on the private involvement of individuals and companies in the shaping of the African security economy speaks to this.

DynCorp’s contract

And so it follows: last June, DynCorp International - one of the “Big Three” armed security contractors that arrived in Iraq back in 2003 alongside Blackwater/Xe and Triple Canopy - announced that it had been awarded a State Department contract to provide training to the military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the details of the mission remain purposely ambiguous, the contract does specify that the task order was issued by the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, has a base time limit of one year with two additional option years and will focus on training junior to mid-level military personnel in functional areas such as communications, logistics and engineering.

“This is consistent with the recent political history of Africa. Private security contractors have been active in the rebuilding of Liberia since the removal of Charles Taylor. They have also had a role in training AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) peacekeepers as well. Traditionally, training on this level has been offered only by those [US military personnel] currently serving on active duty. But this contract reveals just how thinly spread the US Military is around the world,” Scott A Morgan, an analyst of US policy in Africa, told ISN Insights.

When the announcement was made, it sent a signal throughout the Western private military and security industry that the African continent may be a re-emerging market if a major drawback in forces from Iraq and Afghanistan were ever to come to fruition. As US troops withdraw, fewer private contractors will be required for related protection, contingency and security duties in both states. And, with those markets shrinking, firms are looking to African instability to revitalize their business.

The problem of oversight

Some were skeptical of the State Department’s award. Whilethere is not enough government oversight of these companies and the NGO community has been weak in exposing these firms, Hillary Clinton’s State Department is giving its seal of approval via an export license for DynCorp to gain access to the DRC,” D.C.-based author and investigative journalist Wayne Madsen told ISN Insights.

It may be wondered why DynCorp was awarded another multi-million dollar contract after its Afghan ‘bacha bazi’ dancing boys-and-drugs scandal in northern Afghanistan last year. However, the State Department will undoubtedly gain intelligence from DynCorp, as well as training and security enhancement aligned with its interests in the DRC.

The TransAfrica Forum, a non-profit global justice organization, cites two further cases involving contractor activity that went sour on the continent. The first refers to 1996 when Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI) was working with the Rwandan army. According to the French intelligence service, US Special Forces and mercenaries from MPRI participated in the murder of Rwandan Hutu refugees on the Oso River in 1996. The second refers to DynCorp’s “failure” to train 2,000-4,000 Liberians after being awarded a $35 million pledge from the US government in 2005.

“The main issue here has always been the lack of oversight concerning private military contractors hired by the US government. They are audited but very often guilty parties face no prosecution,” Morgan said.

Loopholes and consequences

It could be argued that the training of foreign militaries has to occur somehow; if the US military is unable or unwilling to deliver it themselves, then the private sector is always going to find a way. However there exists the real possibility that private sector involvement can make a bad situation even worse.

“Command and Control is a serious issue within the Congolese Military and there will be little oversight in the US [Congress]. The only way that any oversight will be conducted is by a US State Department audit or if the shareholders of DynCorp somehow catch wind of any wrongdoing,” Morgan told ISN Insights. “However, the idea of proxy control by the State Department does have merit because [it] can then determine who can become a ‘future leader’ to be properly groomed [and aligned with] US interests.”

Managing by proxy seems to be exactly the desire of the State Department. First, it decreases the visibility of ‘state-owned’ troops and casualties; second, and perhaps more importantly, the use of contractors gives governments the advantage of plausible deniability, even when contractor missions and activities are widely reported.

When asked why DynCorp had been awarded a contract back in 2004 to operate in the Sudan, an anonymous US government official told CorpWatch: “The answer is simple. We are not allowed to fund a political party or agenda under United States law, so by using private contractors, we can get around those provisions. Think of this as somewhere between a covert program run by the CIA and an overt program run by the United States Agency for International Development. It is a way to avoid oversight by Congress."

In a recent article discussing the use of private contractors on the African continent, Johnnie Carson, the top official for African affairs in Obama’s State Department put it bluntly: “We do not want an American footprint or boot on the ground.”

The issue of oversight and accountability of private firms acting on behalf of the US Departments of State or Defense has long been the Achilles’ heel of the private military and security industry. That a private company financed by taxpayers’ money will be representing US strategic goals in a place like the DRC indicates the issue is far from resolved. While the expansion of the market has yet to be realized by the industry, time will tell if Africa provides the next boom for private military and security providers. Until then, DynCorp is leading the way into the jungle.

Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.