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Send in the Mercenaries

The New York Times reported last week in horrified tones about an apparent plan by Saracen International — a South African security firm — to offer its services to the government of Somalia. According to the Times, Erik Prince, the former SEAL who started Blackwater, is somehow involved in the deal, which is reportedly being financed by the United Arab Emirates.

There is more than a whiff of disapprobation about the entire article, with its mention of apartheid-era connections on the part of one of Saracen’s principals and of the scandals that have plagued Blackwater. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s good news.

Somalia, after all, is a country with hardly any functioning security force of its own. Its government is hanging on by its fingernails in the face of a concerted assault by the Islamist group known as the Shahab. An 8,000-strong African Union force has been bolstered the government only a little. Battles continue to rage daily in Mogadishu, often only a few hundred yards from the center of government. In those circumstances, what’s wrong with the Somali government looking for outside help? The U.S. and our European allies have no interest in sending in our own troops, so why not send in mercenaries?

In fact, as I’ve argued in the past,  the mercenary option can work when nothing else is viable. Blackwater and other contractors have caused their share of problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would undoubtedly have been better to have had their work performed by American troops. But there were not enough American troops to do all that was required. In Somalia, there are no American troops at all (aside from occasional forays by Special Operations Forces).

In this article in the American Interest, I pointed out the successes scored by the closely linked South African firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline:

[I]n their heyday in the 1990s they helped the governments of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone, among others, to put down savage insurgencies at a time when the rest of the world stood idly by. In 1995–96, for instance, Executive Outcomes made short work of a rebel movement in Sierra Leone known as the Revolutionary United Front, which was notorious for chopping off the limbs of its victims. As a result, Sierra Leone was able to hold its first free election in decades. Another private firm, MPRI, helped to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia in 1995 by organizing the Croatian offensive that stopped Serbian aggression. Today MPRI provides trainers who operate side by side with local poppy-eradication forces in Afghanistan—a mission that NATO refuses to take on.

Saracen International, as it happens, is the successor to Executive Outcomes.  According to the Times, it is already “training a 1,000-member antipiracy militia in Puntland, in northern Somalia, and plans a separate militia in Mogadishu.” Now, after the Times article, those plans may be endangered. A follow-up account in the Times quotes a Somali official saying, “We need help but we don’t want mercenaries.”

Who, then, is going to help Somalia? Those who sniff at this option should be required to come up with an alternative that could work half as well to prevent Somalia from falling into the clutches of radical Islamists.


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