In Libya, fight mercenaries with mercenaries

March 29, 2011|By Deane-Peter Baker

It is time to state the glaringly obvious. Without at least some boots on the ground in support of the rebels, the conflict in Libya will in all likelihood settle into a grinding stalemate. The air cover provided by the United States and a slowly growing coalition has pegged back Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces, but it will take more than air cover to ensure a rebel victory. The rebels have displayed laudable courage and enthusiasm. But they lack the basic military organization necessary to effectively tackle the weak, but better equipped and organized, government forces.

The United States, however, is rightly chary about getting sucked into another ground war, and the other contributors to the no-fly zone are even less enthusiastic. But the alternative of sustaining an expensive air campaign over an indefinite period is also unappealing.

There is a third option that seems not to have been considered but which offers real possibilities. Outsource the problem. Provide the necessary funding for the rebels to secure the services of one or more of the private companies that could supply the necessary expertise and logistical support to turn the rebel rabble into a genuine fighting force.

Of course this suggestion will be met in many circles with horror. Mr. Gadhafi, the bad guy, is allegedly using mercenaries. We're the good guys, and we would never stoop so low.

Really? Does anyone remember the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, a private concern that played a crucial role in resisting Japanese aggression in China prior to U.S. entry into World War II? We remember them more readily by the name "The Flying Tigers," and there's little doubt that those "mercenaries" (I prefer the morally neutral term "contracted combatants") were among the true heroes of that war.

We don't need to go that far back to find examples of private contractors turning the tide, for the good, in conflicts not dissimilar to the one currently underway in Libya. In Angola in the early 1990's, when UNITA rebels refused to accept the outcome of the national elections and reignited the long and bloody civil war in that country, the hard pressed Angolan government turned to the now defunct South African company Executive Outcomes (EO). The small group of EO contractors that deployed to Angola successfully trained and aided Angolan forces in pushing back UNITA's battle-hardened and relatively well equipped troops.

And this was no fluke. In 1995 the Sierra Leone government, facing collapse in the face of a brutal criminal insurgency by the Revolutionary United Front, also turned to EO, which provided the key capabilities necessary to turn the situation around.

The knee-jerk reasons that are usually given for thinking contracted combatants to be morally problematic simply don't stand up under scrutiny. The fact is that they are, morally speaking, more like traditional soldiers than we give them credit for. What defines whether or not they are "just warriors" depends on a range of factors, essentially the same factors that apply to uniformed military personnel. Contracted combatants supporting the Libyan rebels would need to adhere to jus in bello (justice in war) moral constraints. But there is no reason in principle why appropriate oversight mechanisms could not be put in place to ensure that happens.

Whether or not the U.S. should have become involved in Libya's civil war is a moot point. We are involved, and we now bear some of the responsibility for how this all unfolds. At the same time, we also have a responsibility not to unduly risk the lives of U.S. military personnel in a war that really has little to do with U.S. national interests. Contractors, the ultimate volunteers, offer us a way to honorably fulfill both responsibilities.

Deane-Peter Baker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of "Just Warriors Inc.: The Ethics of Privatized Force" and co-editor of "South Africa and Contemporary Counterinsurgency: Roots, Practices, Prospects." His e-mail is The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the United States Naval Academy.

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