In the late 1980s, under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the Pentagon began to privatise many of the military’s support services that had traditionally be done soldiers, sailors, and airmen — laundries, dining halls, security guards, cleaning latrines, some supply functions, etc. It was argued at the time that this would save money and free up troops for combat duties, thus increasing the tooth-to-tail ratio of our military forces. According to this logic, fact that we were fielding an army that could not feed itself or wash its own laundry was deemed to be a cost-effective contributor to combat power. Of course, the only real result was to transfer another large part of the defense budget to the defense contractors and open up vast new opportunities for price gouging.
It is an undeniable fact that, despite a massive move to privatization of support functions by the Pentagon, the tooth-to-tail ratio continued to get worse during the 1990s and in the subsequent decade, the daily cost per unit of deployed combat power, be it troops marching in the mud, flying hours, ship steaming hours, or tank miles driven, etc continued to increase at a rate much faster than the overall defense budget increased.<
As a result, two relatively low-tempo, small wars (compared to Korea or Vietnam) — i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan — have now cost more than any war America has fought, save WWII (in inflation adjusted dollars). Privatization — the neoliberal panacea for all things according to the adherents of the Chicago School of economics — may have created bloated profits for the MICC, fomented the rise of private armies, like Blackwater, and increased the corruption that naturally takes place among war profiteers, but the result has been a disaster for our nation.<
The below article in Le Monde Diplomatique is a good, albeit disgusting, example of how the privatization of public enterprise works in the real world of America’s permanent war economy.
Slaves to the private military in Iraq
Private security firms won lucrative contracts to supply support staff and security guards to back up US forces in Iraq. They recruited Ugandans and pushed them to the limit, on low pay and no benefits
by Alain Vicky
Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2012
“I realised immediately that I’d just made the worst mistake in my life. But it was too late. I’d signed up for a year. I had to take it like a man,” said Bernard (1), a young Ugandan who worked for an American private military company (PMC) operating in Iraq. He was part of the “invisible army” (2) recruited by the US to support its war effort. Bernard returned to Uganda last year. He is ill, but has been denied the welfare and healthcare benefits promised in his contract.
White recruits — from the US, Israel, South Africa, the UK, France and Serbia — hired by PMCs that have won contracts with the Pentagon (worth $120bn since 2003) have received substantial pay, often more than $10,000 a month; “third country nationals” (TCNs) like Bernard have been treated badly and their rights as employees have been abused. Some, sent home after being wounded, get no help from their former employers.
In June 2008, when the US began its withdrawal from Iraq, there were 70,167 TCNs to 153,300 regular US military personnel; in late 2010 there were still 40,776 TCNs to 47,305 regulars. TCNs (men and women) were recruited in the countries of the South to work on the 25 US military bases in Iraq, including Camp Liberty, an “American small town” built near Baghdad, which at its peak had a population of over 100,000. They made up 59% of the “basic needs” workforce, handling catering, cleaning, electrical and building maintenance, fast food, and even beauty services for female military personnel.
Some, especially African recruits, were assigned to security duties, paired up with regular troops: 15% of the static security personnel (guarding base entrances and perimeters) hired by the PMCs on behalf of the Pentagon were Sub-Saharans. Among these low-cost guards, Ugandans were a majority, numbering maybe 20,000. They were sometimes used to keep their colleagues in line: in May 2010 they quelled a riot at Camp Liberty by a thousand TCNs from the Indian subcontinent.
The high ratio of Ugandans was due to the political situation in central Africa in the early 2000s.
- In western Uganda the war in the Great Lakes region was officially over.
- In northern Uganda the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels had been brought under control.
- In neighbouring Sudan the civil war was over, opening up the way to independence for the south (3).
More than 60,000 Ugandan troops were demobilised; Iraq seemed like an opportunity. The Ugandan government, a key ally of the US in central Africa, was one of the few to support the Bush administration when the Iraq war began in 2003. US and Ugandan armed forces have collaborated since the mid-1980s. Ugandan journalist and blogger Angelo Izama (4) told me that in 2005 the US needed more paramilitary security — “They were looking for reliable labour from English-speaking countries, veteran labour” — and turned to Uganda.
Veterans can be trouble
Norbert Mao (5), an unsuccessful candidate for Uganda’s Democratic Party in the 2011 presidential elections, believes there was another motive for sending Ugandans to Iraq: “When veterans … are idle, they can be a source of problems. So Iraq was a way of exporting idle veterans. The government saw it as a way of mopping up.” Companies founded by former US military personnel linked up with others founded by former high-ranking officers of the Ugandan armed forces.
Kellen Kayonga — sister-in-law of one of the best-known security company directors in Uganda, General Salim Saleh, who is a younger brother of President Yoweri Museveni — founded Askar Security Services. Since 2005 Askar has recruited manpower on behalf of Special Operations Consulting (SOC, now renamed SOC-SMG), a Nevada-based company founded by two former US officers. Askar’s main competition in Uganda — the Pakistani company Dreshak International — opened a branch in Kampala the same year and began working for another US-based PMC operating in Iraq, EODT. (Since 2006 a dozen more “conflict entrepreneurs” have set up operations in Uganda.) In poorer areas of Kampala, Iraq was seen as the new frontier for kyeyos (migrant workers). A former combatant who signed up with these firms could earn up to $1,300 a month, well above the average in Kampala’s flourishing security and civilian protection sector.
In 2007 more than 3,000 Ugandans were deployed to Iraq. In 2008 they numbered 10,000. Most were employed by American PMCs such as Torres, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Sabre and SOC. “Then,” said Izama, “it degenerated into a price war.” Pay started to fall. “It was an unregulated sector here, so if you had political connections you could muscle your way [into] a business like this. But the essential reason for the under-pricing was that … recruitment was [no longer aimed just at] veterans. Anyone could go [to Iraq].” Another pretext for cutting pay was competition from workers recruited in Kenya and Sierra Leone. Uganda’s labour ministry failed to intervene.
In 2009 average pay fell below $700. Meanwhile, Sabre was getting $1,700 from the US government for every Ugandan guard recruited. Askar was paid $420,000 dollars for sending 264 guards to Iraq for Beowulf International, another PMC.
The Ugandan press uncovered the first cases of exploitation of kyeyos in 2008, but the government merely strengthened the position of the more powerful companies — and those closest to Museveni — by a limited clean-up operation.
“Going to Iraq is like a drowning man grasping at a crocodile. He thinks it will save him from drowning,” said Mao. In autumn 2011 kyeyo pay in Iraq fell to $400 a month for a 12-hour day and a six-day week.
All the men and women I met had been sent to Iraq in or after December 2009. Most were originally from the countryside and had previously worked for security companies in Kampala. Two had studied at Makerere University. They found it difficult to talk about what they had been through, and their testimonies were interrupted by long embarrassed silences.
Start of the journey
Their story began at Dreshak’s Uganda branch in central Kampala. For two months, they underwent military training designed to test their aptitudes. During this time they were not paid; the company only provided meals. At the end of training, Dreshak asked them to go home and wait to be recalled. Some waited for three months. The day they were finally summoned was the point of no return. A former recruit said: “We had no other option. All the time we were waiting, we were spending money without earning any. Some of us had even sold all our belongings, except for the chairs. We had no option but to sign. Under those conditions, they could make us accept anything.” The contract they were shown at this point was 11 pages long. They were given 15 minutes to read it and initial each page.
That day, the recruits also discovered the name of their final employer — SOC. Bernard remembered hesitating before signing: “I was working for the internet department of a company and when I saw the pay SOC were offering I really wondered if it was worth it. It was only 300,000 shillings (around $117) more a month.” On the insistence of his friends, and after a number of phone calls from an “American manager”, Bernard eventually decided to go. Two days and a seven-hour flight later, he landed in Baghdad.
Three-quarters of an hour by helicopter from Baghdad, the Al-Assad airbase was a little piece of America in the middle of Iraq. The SOC unit the kyeyos were joining was made up of around 800 Ugandans, commanded by a few Ugandan expatriates who took their orders from US superiors.
After another month of training, again unpaid, the new recruits discovered Iraq’s dust storms and freezing winter nights. They had to wait several months for the equipment SOC had promised. The gloves they needed for the cold nights only arrived at the end of the winter. Some had to buy their own dust masks at the PX (base store), $25 out of their meagre pay. Even the military equipment they were issued with was not regulation: AK 47, cartridge belt, helmet and bulletproof vest, all second-hand — the kyeyos joked that they were Chinese. They carried a heavier load, but were less well protected than the regulars from snipers, who could hit the mark at a range of several hundred metres: among their duties was checking the 500 vehicles entering the compound each day.
Termination of services
As the weeks went by, they discovered that the enemy could also be within their own unit: their bosses worked them far harder than was allowed in their contract, pushing them beyond the limits of their physical endurance. Some worked 15 hours a day. Holidays (unpaid) in Uganda, which they had been promised after 12 months on tour, were repeatedly postponed. A number of former TCNs told me they had lived under constant pressure, terrified, even at night: “You couldn’t say anything. They had the power of life and death over you; they could send you wherever they liked — to the most dangerous posts if they thought you were a troublemaker.”
SOC had the perfect way to control recalcitrant TCNs: terminating their contract without severance pay and shipping them home. A contract I obtained from SOC lists 21 kinds of unacceptable behaviour that will result in disciplinary measures. In this document, “termination of services” is the last resort after a series of other measures, ranging from a written warning to suspension for five days without pay. On the ground, the reality was far harsher. In the contract, SOC reserves the right to “take other disciplinary action on other violations of orders or policy that may not be listed”. A former recruit told me: “You would get a warning letter … because you hadn’t been wearing your helmet off duty, and they would stop your pay for two weeks. And you still had to work. We were scared of losing our jobs, so we kept our mouths shut.” The code of conduct section of the contract requires the employee to “uphold the ideals of the Republic of Uganda” and “refrain from tarnishing the image of Uganda abroad”.
The SOC contract also provides for “termination of services” if the employee is unable to work, owing to illness, injury or accident, for 30 days or more in any four-month period. Bernard was privileged because he worked in SOC’s offices, but saw dozens of his countrymen fired for arbitrarily assessed health problems. “During the long dust storms,” he said, “they used to develop ear infections or sinusitis. They had eye problems, even lung problems. When they asked for treatment, all they got was aspirin. And when they came back because it didn’t cure them, they would be fired. SOC just didn’t want to have to pay any kind of medical expenses. As they used to tell us, they were there to make money.”
Last summer Bernard began to have pains in his knee. An SOC “doctor” gave him a corticosteroid, which made things worse. The skin on his face began to peel: “I saw another doctor, or so-called doctor, who started looking for information on Google!” A few weeks later, Bernard’s contract was terminated. He spent 20 days in transit, left to his own devices at a camp in Baghdad, before finally managing to get on a chartered flight to Kampala. That was last autumn, just 10 days before I met him. Bernard had not yet been to see his mother, fearing she would be upset at the state of his face. But he had been to see the family doctor: “I told him what they had prescribed. He said it was the worst mistake they could have made and told me I would have to fight to regain my health. He made me a list of drugs. It’s the biggest expense I’ve ever faced: over 300,000 shillings. I desperately need money to continue the treatment, but Dreshak don’t want to know. And I’ve heard nothing from SOC.”
Like all foreign nationals working for PMCs under contract to the Pentagon, sick or wounded Ugandans repatriated from Iraq are, in principle, covered by the Defense Base Act, which guarantees that their employer’s insurer will reimburse their medical expenses. It also provides for disability pay for the most unfortunate. “But, all too often, the Ugandans do not receive the medical care and disability that they are supposed to,” American lawyer Tara K Coughlin told me.
Taking on the insurers
A couple of years ago, Coughlin, a member of a Christian organisation supporting US soldiers in Iraq, discovered that Ugandans were working alongside “our boys”. Using her own money — her clients can’t afford the medical examinations they need to put together a dossier to support their claim — she has taken the cases of 30 former kyeyos who came back sick or injured from Iraq to the US Department of Labour. They include Ugandan women suffering from musculoskeletal problems caused by excessively heavy equipment. Coughlin has filed complaints against EODT, SOC, Sabre and Triple Canopy, and their insurers, including the giant American International Group (AIG). Ultimately, she stressed, it is the insurance companies that deny medical care and compensation to the Ugandans.
Coughlin has already visited Uganda twice. She has to work discreetly and delicately. First, with the help of a former kyeyo also returned from Iraq, she seeks out victims: “One problem is that many of the injured Ugandans who come home to Uganda cannot afford to live in Kampala or other large cities, so they go back to their villages without knowing how to get help [from the US legal system]. … My estimate is that there are several hundred Ugandans at least who have been wounded. And that estimate could be conservative.” Then, she has to overcome their suspicion and the embarrassment they feel in talking to a white female foreigner. Many of her clients were pressured not to report their injuries. “I had one client who was injured and his contractor boss threatened to send him home to Uganda in a ‘body bag’ if he reported his injury.” And when they received medical care in Iraq, their medical records were often confiscated by their bosses before they were allowed to return to Uganda. Coughlin and her clients have to start again from scratch. They have to work quickly too: kyeyos returning from Iraq have just 12 months to file a complaint.
Coughlin also has to fight the mighty machine the insurance companies have deployed, reaching all the way to Uganda. AIG uses investigators, such as the Maltese company Tangiers International, to contest claims. According to Coughlin, some investigators have extremely questionable ethics. Another investigative company contacted one of her clients and tried to take him to their own physician for a second opinion. Another client has been physically unable to work since he returned from Iraq — he received a mysterious call offering him a job, just to see if he would accept it. Given the scarcity of medical specialists in Uganda, Coughlin is concerned that she will one day run into a doctor who is in the pay of the insurance companies. Countering the investigators, she said, is one of the most difficult aspects of her work.
Uganda’s labour ministry estimates that the men and women sent to Iraq since 2005 should have been able to send over $90m home to their families. This is more than Uganda makes from coffee, its principal export. Having, in many cases, spent more than a year in the Middle East, the men I met had on average saved the equivalent of less than $1,300. Their pay, in Ugandan shillings, frozen in accounts at Crane Bank in Kampala until their return, has been steadily eaten away by exchange rate losses, and by inflation, which hit Uganda hard while they were away (over 40% in 2011). “Dreshak recruited us, sold us to SOC and pocketed the proceeds. What we got at the end of the day was peanuts. Basically, what we experienced was modern-day slavery.”
The Commission on Wartime Contracting’s report to the US Congress in August 2011 states that “abuses in contingency contracting undermine the United States’ reputation abroad” and takes the view that “as troop numbers decline, the number of contractors may increase, at least in the short term, for it may be many years — if ever — before the United States fully withdraws from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” (6). The “market for force” (7) is not likely to dry up in the near future. To protect the 16,000 employees of the US embassy in Iraq, the Department of State has hired eight American PMCs, at a cost of $10bn, to recruit an army of 5,500 “contractors”. Triple Canopy will protect the diplomats while SOC will provide static security for five years, for $973m. Askar is now also operating on the Afghan market. Its director Kellen Kayonga says more kyeyos will probably be recruited. The Iraq returnees believe that, from Baghdad to Kabul, and tomorrow maybe to Mogadishu, there will always be Ugandans ready to join this “black force … because of inflation, because of education costs, which are rising, because of the cost of food, which is soaring… It’s not that we like it, but we need to make a living!”