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U.S. Companies Hired to Train Foreign Armies

April 14, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon talks about training the new Afghan National Army, it doesn't mean with its own soldiers. The Green Berets and other elite U. S. troops are needed elsewhere. Instead, the Defense Department is drawing up plans to use its commandos to jump-start the Afghan force, then hire private military contractors to finish the job.

It would be the most vital role yet taken on by a somewhat clandestine industry accustomed to operating on the fringe of U. S. foreign policy by training foreign armies. As the United States pushes its antiterrorism campaign beyond Afghanistan, the role of these private companies promises to grow right along with it.

"The war on terrorism is the full employment act for these guys," said D. B. Des Roches, spokesman for the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

A little-known but increasingly essential addition to the modern battlefield, the firms, studded with retired American generals, have been training the world's more ragtag armies since the 1970s when a group of Vietnam veterans discovered that there was money to be made marketing military expertise--and sold Saudi Arabia on a plan to teach its army how to guard its oil fields.

Business has burgeoned in the messy post-Cold War world. The firms--modern-day mercenary companies armed with Powerpoint presentations instead of weapons--operate today in more than 40 countries, often under contract to the U. S. government.

For the Pentagon, with one-third fewer soldiers than a decade ago but a growing number of entanglements in unlikely places, hiring out the training of foreign armies has become indispensable. Every U. S. military operation in the post-Cold War era has involved significant levels of support from private military firms, from the Persian Gulf to Somalia, Zaire, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia.

But the industry has met with growing criticism by military experts who charge that the firms work with little oversight and less accountability, particularly when hired by foreign governments.

Plans to use the firms in Afghanistan are still preliminary. Although training of an Afghan military force has begun, there is no timetable for turning the task over to contractors. With Afghanistan still volatile, Pentagon officials are grappling with just how private trainers, who typically do not carry weapons, should be employed.

Since Sept. 11 and the Pentagon's launch of the war on terrorism, the stock prices of the publicly traded contractors have soared. Already, trainers from private military companies are in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Al Qaeda operatives are believed to be hiding. Executives of several private military companies have met with Pentagon officials about training other armies in Central Asia.

"A lot of people have said, 'Ding ding ding, gravy train,' " Des Roches said. "But in point of fact, it makes sense. They're probably better at doing these sorts of missions than anyone else I could think of."

Boasts retired Army Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster, an executive at MPRI, the most prominent of the private contractors: "We've got more generals per square foot here than in the Pentagon."

Although the most successful of the U. S. firms carefully screen their employees, prohibit them from carrying arms and generally reject contracts with governments the U. S. considers unsavory, they operate in a world populated by a darker breed of ex-soldiers who serve as guns for hire to thugs throughout the world. Competing military companies in Britain and South Africa have hired out their employees as combatants in Angola and Sierra Leone. And employees of the U. S. companies have sometimes taken up weapons themselves, employees of the firms say.

"We're talking about places where the governments have very little control over their territory . . . where our government has no control over what these firms tell the sometimes very questionable people they work for about how to fight," said Deborah Avant, professor of political science at George Washington University and an authority on the role of the private sector in war. "The more and more we put these people in riskier and riskier areas, the more they have to make these judgments on their own."

The U. S.-based companies say their goals dovetail with a long-held U. S. policy of encouraging military-to-military ties worldwide in the hope that professional armies can help stabilize fragile democracies.

MPRI, founded in 1988 by former Army Chief of Staff Carl Vuono and seven other retired generals, has trained militaries throughout the world under contract to the Pentagon. It counts 20 former senior military officers on its board of directors.

The firm operates from a bland office building in Alexandria, Va., its halls as hushed as those of an insurance firm. But the decor betrays the tough credentials of its founders. A statue of a knight in armor stands in a corner of the lobby. MPRI's emblem is an unsheathed sword.

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