Twenty-first century mercenaries - Afghanistan's answer?

Contracted officers could be the future of international support for the Kabul government, argues Ray Kane.
Ray Kane
24 August 2010

Some people in Poland may occasionally wonder why the family name is a derivative of O’Toole or maybe O’Brien or O’Flaherty. The reason is – like the present-day O’Rourkes of Russia; the O’Donnells of Austria; the O’Connells of France; the O’Higgins of Spain and Chile – they are descendants of the most famous mercenary phenomenon: the Wild Geese. These soldiers fled Ireland after the treaty of Limerick in 1691 and joined the continental Catholic armies. Having settled, they fought in most of Europe’s battles over the succeeding decades.

The demand for mercenary soldiers is as real in the twenty-first century as it was in the Wild Geese’s times. However, their use in today’s developing world – their only realistic milieu – is a political, racial and religious minefield. President’s Karzai’s recent decision to debar from Afghanistan most private military companies – often portrayed as mercenaries – acknowledges this reality.

Just as one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so in the 1960s’ ex-Belgian Congo the mercenary was a murderer to the communist-inspired rebels but a saint to the thousands of Congolese he saved from their atrocities. Let’s look more closely at this example and its impact. 

Congo 1964

In 1964, the Congo was exercising its democratic right to tear itself apart. Africa’s fourth largest country – the private garden of the Belgian King Leopold until 1908 – was still in the turmoil that began within days of its independence in 1960. Then, assassination, cannibalism, coups, mutinies, rebellions and murderous banditry prevailed. Katanga, Congo’s mineral-rich province led by the charismatic Moise Tshombe, had seceded in 1960. Ignoring political and racial taboos, Tshombe recruited white mercenaries who, together with his own gendarmerie, quickly restored order in the province. The UN eventually quashed Katanga’s secession and expelled the mercenaries. Congo’s President recalled the exiled Tshombe to this strategic heart of Africa as prime minister in 1964, when civil war turned into a Cold War battleground. Congo troop deployment being impossible, America needed proxies: so the all-white mercenary unit reappeared. Che Guevara’s Cuban Brigade, its opposing ideological proxy, appeared in an African conflict for the first time. “Mad” Mike Hoare’s mercenaries defeated the rebels’ westward thrust to Kinshasa. Under Tshombe’s political and Belgium’s military control, Hoare’s mercenaries subsequently saved thousands of Congolese lives, killing some of Che Guevara’s Cubans in the process. When Hoare departed the Congo, so did strict military and political discipline over the mercenaries: criminality and mutinies followed. It was this mayhem which outlawed the use of all-white mercenary units in future African wars.  

The lesson is that mercenaries must be subject to strict military discipline based on international laws governing conflict. They must be under political control and subject to their employer country’s criminal laws. For recent historical reasons, the all-white mercenary unit is a political and moral liability to its employer and a boon to its enemies. As a creature of history it has no place in modern developing-world conflicts. So where might we find more recent mercenary success? Think about the following scenario and then place the conflict: a mountainous, desert and undeveloped Muslim country, populated by illiterate warlike tribes engaged in perpetual internecine squabbling, under threat of civil war, and with a beleaguered leader relying on foreigners to keep him in power. Afghanistan 2010? No, Oman 1970.

Oman, 1970

Oman’s Dhofar War, 1965-1975, morphed from its nationalist beginnings into the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The war’s winner – one of the few countries to defeat a Russian/Chinese-backed full-scale communist revolutionary war – was Oman and its fifty percent-plus mercenary-soldiered Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). Omani, Baluchi, Iranian, Pakistani, Zanzibari, and Indian soldiers were led by a sprinkling of British, Irish, Rhodesian, South African, Australian and New Zealand seconded and mercenary officers. All, apart from the British and Indian seconded officers, were subject to Oman’s Sharia Law. In this war of ideas where politics was the key, Sultan Qaboos was demonstrably the political boss. Additionally, the loyalty of SAF mercenary officers and their soldiers was to the Sultan and Oman and not to the UK. It was palpably an Omani war, not a British war. Mercenaries’ loyalty must be to their employer and not their mother country. 

Afghanistan, 2010

Nato, having labelled Afghanistan a “must-win”, can only withdraw honourably after either an undeniable military victory, or a handover to an Afghan National Army (ANA) that is a well-trained, well-led professional outfit capable of preventing a Taliban and other insurgent takeover. As military victory seems improbable, how do you turn the current ANA into its country’s guardian in the shortest timescale?

One answer – use mercenaries.

The word mercenary has long since lost its romantic connotations and turned into a perjorative. But let’s call these mercenaries “contract officers”, as did their British government recruiters for the Oman army. The infantry battalion is the workhorse in counter-revolutionary warfare and SAF’s comprised about 800 men led by sixteen mixed seconded and contract officers.

A recruit - whether to the infantry, artillery, engineers, specialist units or to an air force - needs six months’ training and their leaders need years of experience, roughly as follows: corporal, two years; sergeant, four years; lieutenant, eighteen months; captain, four years; major, eight years; lieutenant colonel, twelve years. Even taking no account of low ANA literacy levels, under present circumstances these time-scales make a quick, honourable, Nato exit from Afghanistan impossible.

But throw our contract officers into the mix and note how this time burden reduces dramatically. Oman’s air force comprised 50 percent contract officer aircrew kept airborne by a commercial maintenance company. Afghanistan could have such an air force, with 100% contract officer aircrew, also in about twelve months’ time. You would need around 3,200 contract officers overall, compared to the 100,000 plus who currently make up Nato’s force in Afghanistan. A mixture of ethnic Afghan and foreign contract general officers would exercise ANA command and control. Fortuitously, an excellent candidate for the top contract officer post – enjoying the full liking and respect of President Karzai – has just become available. The now retired General Stanley A McCrystal might well relish the opportunity and the freedom from Washington interference to validate his counter-insurgency philosophy.

Would such contract officers run the hazard being regarded as a white, western, infidel occupation of Muslim lands, further provoking the Taliban’s war against an elected Afghan government? No, and here’s why. Firstly, because of their numerical insignificance (eg 3,200 contract officers spread among 160,000 Afghan infantryman), they would be almost invisible – to see more than two contract officers in the same place at the same time would be unusual. Secondly, because of their ethnic mix. Contract officers would be drawn from highly qualified European, American, Asian and African (particularly Nigerian) sources.

Thirdly, because of their contract conditions. Subject to Sharia Law, commissioned by, and contracted to, the Afghan government, our contract officers’ loyalty – when serving – would be to Afghanistan and not their mother country. They would be fighting-commanders and mentors of Afghan understudies as they were in SAF, and not powerless advisers. They would be as much part of the ANA as any Afghan indigene. They would be Afghan government-commissioned officers in an Afghan Army fighting an Afghan war under Afghan government control. There would be no white, infidel occupiers for the Taliban to propagandize against – as there is now.

How do the western private military companies (PMCs) operating in Afghanistan fit in to this picture? They don’t. They may not be mercenaries, yet they are perceived as such. Their presence rekindles the spectre of the internationally unacceptable, rampaging white mercenary band – and provides excellent enemy propaganda fodder. Their use flouts every principle of 21st century mercenary employment already identified, in that: they are not subject to Afghan law; their loyalty is not to the Afghan government and people; they are not subject to strict military discipline. In a situation where everything is politics and politics is everything, they and their actions are not politically controlled. Although debarring them only now, President Karzai probably recognised the PMCs’ liabilities years ago; it demonstrates ISAF’s arrogance and naivety that it did not. 

The twenty-first century mercenary will be an ex-officer or ex-sergeant, 25-35 years-old, a non-racist, of high moral standard, expert in his field and with outstanding leadership qualities. By serving his country’s friends and allies, the mercenary serves his country. Maybe the word “mercenary” will be rehabilitated, no longer a pejorative word in search of an euphemism be it, “contract officer”, “adviser” or other: maybe it will become an honourable profession. 

The Americans would coordinate payment of our contract officers’ salaries and other compensation – a miniscule amount compared with the American tax dollars now flowing into Afghanistan. Wounded contract officers would be fed into their mother country’s military medical and rehabilitation services. In return for risking life and limb, our mercenary will have the most comprehensive insurance policy covering every eventuality and paying civilian-standard benefits. In three years’ mercenary service, he will earn enough to buy a house, pay his kids’ way through college and purchase lifetime health care. There should be some beer-money left over.

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