[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]
MERCENARIES HEAD FOR AFGHANISTAN
By Rémy Ourdan, special correspondent
Le Monde (Paris)
June 11, 2009
KABUL -- They're trying to be more discreet and less murderous than they were in Iraq. In Kabul, foreign mercenaries don't spray machine-gun fire at intersections, and laws are trying to force them to cooperate with Afghan companies. But with the improvement of the situation in Iraq and since Barack Obama announced that Afghanistan and Pakistan were the "central front" of the war against al-Qaeda, they're arriving.
Prospects on the horizon and the most interesting future contracts, say private military firms, are on the Afghan front. The progressive return of the Taliban over the course of the past three years and the multiplication of kidnappings are an opportunity for them: it's rare that foreigners go about the streets of the Afghan capital without protection.
An incident threw a spotlight on their presence. Coming back from dinner on the evening of May 5, after a car accident, four paramilitaries from an American company unknown till then, Paravant, machine-gunned an Afghan car: one dead and two wounded. The lawyer for the paramilitaries says that they were repelling an insurgent attack, but the police investigation proved that the passengers in the vehicle were unarmed merchants. As in Iraq, as in other incidents in Afghanistan, justice will not be done: the men have fled to the United States.
But the episode revealed that Paravant, which has a contract to train the Afghan police, is a discreet subsidiary of Blackwater, the most important mercenary company in the world and a symbol of the Bush-era privatization of war that has been involved in multiple slaughters and assassinations in Iraq and which has been rebaptized Xe. And it also revealed that these men respected neither Afghan law nor their contract, carrying arms when not on duty, AK-47s that can be bought on the black market for a few dollars.
The Obama administration has not indicated its intentions with regard to the privatization of war. In Iraq in 2007, the number of contractors, mercenaries, etc., compared to soldiers in uniform, reached a ratio of 1-to-1. Unprecedented in the history of warfare. And a problem for democracy, since the contracts are often opaque and these men are out of reach both of national and military justice. This is not just the law of the strongest, it's war with total impunity.
Blackwater-Xe has been kicked out of Iraq, almost two years after the Iraqi government demanded the company leave in the aftermath of a slaughter in September 2007 in the center of Baghdad (17 dead). The contract for the protection of State Department diplomats in Baghdad ended on May 7 and has been transferred to Triple Canopy. But Blackwater has kept two contracts in Iraq, one for the protection of American diplomats in the South, the other for its aviation division, Presidential Air. One of them was renewed for $22.2m in February, just after Barack Obama entered the White House, which upset some people on the left in the U.S. And this doesn't take into account the secret contracts: Blackwater is not saying a word about its activities in the area of intelligence. And its ties to the CIA are more than close.
In Afghanistan, Blackwater-XE has a visible presence with Presidential Air, which handles helicopter rotations. The contract for protecting State Dept. diplomats has just been given to the British company Aegis. But the May 5 incident reveals that Blackwater-Xe is benefiting from other contracts, like Paravant's. At first, the training contract, worth $11m, was given to Raytheon, which subcontracted with Paravant. Blackwater is the target of investigations in the United States by Congress and the Pentagon, but Erik Prince's company is still supported by the administration, which gives it sensitive missions.
"There's no going back," one American officer thinks. "Unless you increase the defense budget considerably, the Obama administration will not be able to renationalize war. Yet these guys cause us nothing but problems. Not only do they earn ten times the pay of our soldiers, but they're subject to none of our rules. They have no chain of command and no sanctions. We try to get the population behind us, but they couldn't care less. They come to make money and they leave." The four mercenaries who opened fire on May 5 were dismissed by Blackwater. But in other similar case the men came back into theater through another company or a front company.
"There more war there is, the more mercenary work there is," says "Bob," a British mercenary who spoke anonymously. "What's new is that after September 11, our activities have become ultralegal. We've never earned so much money. It's a golden age." He acknowledges that "the arrival of the guys from Iraq poses a problem, because here, you have to be more discreet, and not machine-gun civilians they way they do over there." "Bob" admits that the interests of his employers are different from those of NATO: "The American and British armies and the others are here to win a war. For us, the worse the security situation gets, the better it is."
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003