A fascinating scandal has erupted in Washington over the use of mercenaries (‘private contractors’ in US terminology) that is exposing the dark underbelly of America’s foreign wars. It has been that the Pentagon and other US intelligence agencies secretly fielded mercenaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan (aka “Af-Pak”), and Iraq to assassinate tribal militants.
US law forbids murder or using mercenaries. But, as the Roman jurist Cicero said, “laws are silent in times of war.”
A former senior Pentagon official specialising in clandestine operations, Mike Furlong, set up a shell company, International Media Ventures (IMV), to supposedly provide the US military with “cultural information” about Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes. Two obscure Pentagon outfits, the “Cultural Engineering Group” in Florida, and “Counter-Narco-terrorism Technology Programme” of Virginia funded Furlong with $24.6 million. Furlong hired a bunch of former Special Forces types and assorted thugs. These rent-a-Rambos’s real mission was to assassinate Pashtun leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and target tribal compounds for strikes by US Predator drones. Welcome to the modern version of the Mafia’s infamous contract killers, “Murder Inc.”
Thickening this plot, retired CIA types, including the flamboyant Dewey Clarridge, whom I well recall from the 1980’s Afghan war, were involved. So were other would-be bounty-hunters, eager to cash in one the Pentagon’s cash bonanza. It is uncertain if Furlong’s Murder Inc had time to go operational. But its exposure is causing uproar. In best US government tradition, the Pentagon denied backing Furlong and cut him adrift. He is now under criminal investigation. Shades of former CIA agent Edwin Wilson, whose frightful case I long followed. Wilson was set up as a deniable “independent” by CIA to supply arms and explosives to Libya and Angola in the 1980’s. When this intrigue blew wide open, Wilson was kidnapped by US agents and buried alive in federal prison for 27 years.
The Furlong scandal comes at a time of growing criticism of the US government’s use of over 275,000 mercenaries in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These hired gunmen and logistics personnel operate without any accountability, legal structure, or oversight. Lack of command and control of such free-lancers infuriates traditional military men, who detest US Special Forces and these hired gunmen as ‘cowboys.’
It certainly is no way to win over Muslim hearts and minds.
Private mercenary firms like Xe (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp have raked in fortunes running private armies for the US. They are major donors to the far right of the Republican Party. Deeply worried civil libertarians call these private armies potential Brownshirts, after the Nazi Party’s private army in the late 1920’s.
Amazingly, US Special Forces in Af-Pak have not until this month been under the control of supreme commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. They apparently reported to his rival, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus in Tampa, Florida.
To the Pentagons’s anger, CIA runs its own killer paramilitary units and drone assassination operations, 90 per cent of whose victims are civilians, according to Pakistani media investigations. CIA’s paramilitaries report only to HQ in Langley —which does not talk to the Pentagon. Pakistan’s feeble government is not even informed in advance of Predator strikes and assassinations on its own territory. How many of the 15 other US intelligence agencies and NATO forces are running their own little illegal private armies? US mercenaries are responsible for a growing number of civilian deaths. It’s only a matter of time before all these cowboys begin shooting at one another. Reliable sources in Pakistan report that US-paid mercenaries are staging bombings there and in Afghanistan in an attempt to incite popular anger against Islamic or tribal militants, and draw Pakistan’s army deep into the fray.
Washington brands all Al Qaeda and Taleban “illegal combatants,” denying them due process of law and the Geneva Convention’s prisoner protections. Murdering or torturing such “terrorists,” says Washington, is lawful. So what about all the US mercenary Rambos running amok, who wear no uniform, kill at will, and have no legal oversight and, as we saw in Iraq, get away with murder?
Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist who reported from the Middle East and Asia for nearly two decades