C-212 transport aircraft

C-212 transport aircraft

Blackwater is building its own air force, Presidential Airways, and looking to AFRICOM to expand its reach and operations. It has helicopters, the C-212 transport aircraft pictured above, and is acquiring blimps.

From Army Times:

As Africa Command stands up this fall, Prince said he foresees the potential for an even greater need there for his company’s aviation services.

“I think there’s less road now than there was 40 years ago in Africa,” he said. “So, being able to fly around is pretty key and being able to fly into rough places.”

Setting up Africa Command has been pretty sensitive, evidenced by the Defense Department’s inability to find an African country willing to host the new headquarters, so connecting Blackwater and its controversial reputation could add to the anxieties.

Both of Prince’s companies have become the focus of lawsuits, investigations and criticism from U.S. and Iraqi lawmakers as well as military leaders and troops on the ground.

In addition to that Prince has proposed Blackwater as a peacekeeper and trainer of UN/AU troops in Darfur. And this has been promoted in the Wall Street Journal by none other than GW Bush’s speechwriter William McGurn in a July 29 oped titled “Mercenaries for Darfur”. David Isenberg discussed it in his Dogs of War column, reproduced in Middle East Times, Contractors vs. genocide?

Also in 2006, Chris Taylor, a vice president of Blackwater, said it “has a database of thousands of former police and military officers for security assignments. … Blackwater personnel could set up perimeters and guard Darfurian villages and refugee camp in support of the U.N.”

“(Blackwater founder) Mr. (Erik) Prince has a remedy. He believes that with 250 or so professionals, Blackwater can transform about a thousand of the African Union soldiers into an elite and highly mobile force. This force would also be equipped with helicopters and the kind of small planes that missionaries use in this part of the world. It would be cheaper than the hundreds of millions we are spending to set up a larger AU/U.N. force. And he says he’d do it at cost.”

And, if Blackwater needs 250 people to transform 1,000 AU soldiers, then it would need 2,250 to transform 9,000 AU soldiers, as McGurn wrote. And that number is only a third of the authorized 26,000 troops and police for their mission. So if Blackwater were to train the entire authorized force, assuming it ever gets to the authorized end strength, it would need 6,750 people. The idea that the Sudanese would be comfortable with that many Westerners — let alone private military contractors — in their country seems fanciful.

Finally, if the task is just to train AU forces, why would the United States not use its newly established Africa Command, whose mandate specifically includes building “capacity and capabilities among our African partners so that they are able to tackle Africa’s security challenges”?

The line about training and policing Darfur “at cost” is chilling. Erik Prince is in business to make a profit. And there are lots of ways to make a profit in a war zone, especially if you are able to fly things and people around. That is how the notorious arms trafficker and “merchant of death” Viktor Bout got his start and made his fortune. Viktor Bout was arrested in Thailand in March, and proceedings to extradite him to the US are underway. The latest hearing at the end of July was postponed until September. I suspect no one is in a hurry to bring him here due to what he may say if he testifies. Douglas Farah has written about Bout’s history and activities, including working for the US government. From an interview with Douglas Farah, author of Merchant of Death:

… Bout has supplied not only the Taliban, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and Congolese warlords, but the U.S. Army and its contractors as well. …

Bout was known to arm both sides of the same conflict.

The U.S. government response to revelations of the use of Viktor Bout to fly for government contractors in Iraq (not just a few flights, but hundreds, and perhaps a thousand) has been mixed. Bear in mind most of these flights occurred after President Bush had signed an executive order making it illegal to do business with Bout, because he represented a security threat to the United States. The State Department, under a congressional inquiry initiated by Senator Russell Feingold, found it had used Bout companies, acknowledged it, and stopped. Paul Wolfowitz, while at DOD, did not respond to queries for nine months, then acknowledged that DOD contractors had subcontracted to Bout companies. Despite the public revelation, the congressional inquiry, the executive order, and a subsequent Treasury Department order freezing the assets of Bout and his closest associates, the flights continued for many months, at least until the end of 2005. The Air Force cut him off immediately, but other branches of the military continued to use him.

… There is no doubt he has benefited from the schizophrenic policies of the U.S. government (the Treasury and State departments going after him, while DOD pays him money to fly), but it is difficult to say whether that is the result of calculation or just sloppiness.

… Bout’s operations tell us that demand for important commodities, particularly weapons, is at a premium. He could arm different sides of the same conflicts because he was efficient and reliable. That is why they called him “the mailman,” because he always delivered. With the rapid proliferation of failed and failing states across the globe and the rise of religious and economic militias, guns have become a vital commodity.

If the schizophrenic policies of the US allowed the DoD to employ Bout after a presidential directive made it illegal to employ him, how much more effectively can Erik Prince step into his shoes, with Prince’s Republican party connections and powerful lobbying arm. Prince has much more clout and many more friends in the US. Prince is well situated to become a newer and even more profitable version of Viktor Bout. And more profits in the contraband business mean more people dead and damaged.

The demand for weapons and contraband is there. Thanks to the US War on Drugs and the Columbians, West Africa has become a transit point for drugs. And Blackwater is already ideally situated to participate in the drug trade from Afghanistan. There are many forms of contraband, including slavery, that a private air company could transport at great profit. And the rule for profiting in the air is never fly empty. Even if the company itself does not participate in this trade, Blackwater employees can easily participate on their own initiative. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors can go out of control and are not responsible or accountable to anyone. One result is huge sums of US taxpayer dollars have already disappeared.