Stephen Armstrong / The Guardian – 2006-05-21 22:20:03
(May 20, 2006) — Colonel Tim Spicer is the future of warfare. Immaculately dressed, effortlessly charming, a keen Eric Clapton fan with tickets for most of Slowhand’s gigs over the summer, he is also effectively in charge of the second largest military force in Iraq: the estimated 20,000 private security personnel who outnumber the British army by almost three to one.
Spicer’s company, Aegis, has a contract with the Pentagon worth almost $300 million to oversee the 16 private security companies providing personnel, security, military training and reconstruction. As Bush’s poll ratings fall, it looks as if these private soldiers will only increase.
Estimates of their numbers vary and Spicer isn’t convinced by the figure of 20,000. “I’d say there’s no more than 8,000 if you define it as expat Brits or Americans,” he says. “If you include Iraqi security companies and third-country nationals like Gurkhas, Fijians and others, you could be getting up to 20,000. The oil protection force used to be run by a private security company and it had upwards of 10,000 people in it, but that’s now been nationalised under the Ministry of Oil.”
No matter how many there are, the strategic advantage for the Pentagon in working so closely with the likes of Aegis is clear. Iraq’s increasing unpopularity in America is mainly fuelled by rising troop casualties — now approaching 2,500 — while private security deaths go unrecorded. The American broadcaster PBS estimated that 18 “private warriors” were killed in two weeks last June, but there are no official figures.
“The impact of casualties is much more significant if they’re sovereign forces as opposed to contractors,” Spicer says. “However, it is the sovereign forces that do the fighting. Aegis’s casualty figures are incredibly light — we’ve lost three in two years; two to suicide bombs and one to a road accident. I couldn’t tell you about the other companies.”
As Bush and Blair face pressure to set deadlines for troop withdrawal and the violence continues, there’s every chance these private companies could take up the security slack. Their numbers have mushroomed since 9/11.
In the 1990s, there were probably a handful at most, today there are 25 in the UK, about 30 in the US and a few in France and Germany. And they are becoming ambitious.
In April, a US private security company called Blackwater declared itself ready and able to resolve the situation in Darfur. “We’re low cost and fast,” said its vice chairman. “The question is, who’s going to let us play on their team?” Aegis’s Iraq contract makes it the largest British player in the “security bubble”. Should the troops withdraw, they’d effectively be in charge of the western presence in Iraq.
“I don’t think any of the coalition nations are going to cut and run,” says Spicer. “But if they did go, that would not mean the end of the insurgency. I don’t subscribe to the view that there is a civil war going on, but if the coalition left it could very easily disintegrate into one.
“The Iraqi security forces are not ready to take control. And therefore there would be a very significant increased role for private security – protecting critical infrastructure like oil, power station and water supplies, otherwise the insurgents will blow them up.”
In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia
We’re walking through the galleries of the Imperial War Museum and come to rest in front of the sleek, black motorbike Lawrence of Arabia was riding when he died. Spicer is fascinated by Lawrence as the man who organised the first modern Middle Eastern insurgency against an imperial power.
Despite leaving his public school early to sprawl on the grass at the Isle of Wight festival and manage American rock bands, it was his interest in history that finally drew him back into the family tradition of army service.
The museum is one of his favourite places. Initially he and his son came to see the planes and tanks in the bright main hall but, as the boy got older, he took him to the fake first world war trenches to get a sense of what life is like under fire. I wonder aloud why a soldier with Falklands experience would return to combat in the private sector after leaving the army in 1995.
“I did go and work in the City,” he smiles, “but if you’ve trained to do certain things for 20 years and you’re halfway competent and … and you enjoy it, because that is the difference between the conscript and the volunteer, you probably miss it, if the truth be known. Why leave the army and join a private security company? Certainly there’s an element of financial reward. But most people who work for me feel they are doing a valuable job. It’s not just a bunch of hard men in it for the money.”
That, however, is an accusation thrown at him in the past. He vigorously defended two of his soldiers convicted of murder in Northern Ireland and, after his stint in the City, set up Sandline — a private security company implicated in scandals in both Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea.
“I’ve always said that in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone there was nothing wrong with what Sandline was doing because we were there at the request of the democratically elected governments,” he argues. “But it attracted a lot of attention and played into the hands of people who felt that this was not a good way of doing things. The idea was well before its time. There was a huge amount of suspicion, mistrust and poor connotation attached to the security business at that time.”
Infesting in Security Services
In a world where everything is contracted out, however, big security contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq mean the private security sector is bidding for respectability. Certainly the City sees the potential. Spicer is fending off calls from investors almost every day. Earlier this year, the British Association of Private Security Companies was set up, a lobbying body keen to promote self-regulation. The word mercenary is frowned upon. Although Spicer was happy to use it in its literal sense five years ago, it now makes him uncomfortable. “It’s a pejorative term,” he shrugs. “Mercenaries are bad.”
Which is why he set up Aegis in September 2002. “I wanted to make sure that Aegis was a completely different animal.” The company now has 1,200 employees. Three divisions provide intelligence, security operations and technical support. Many of the ground staff are ex-military, but the board has a number of merchant bankers and there’s a sprinkling of journalists, police, former UN staffers and aid workers. There are offices in London, Washington, Kabul, Saudi Arabia and Nepal, but the company’s largest presence is in Iraq.
It’s not been a good week out there, but Spicer is an optimist. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but if this government is formed and is balanced and the militias that support political parties can be kept in check — which is touch and go — then you’ll see significant progress.”
Even so, there’s an insurgency and a great deal of chaos. Would he join the calls from US generals for the head of Donald Rumsfeld? He speaks carefully: “There was a feeling that once the Ba’ath party had been removed there would be a natural desire to break away from 30 years of oppression and develop the country. There was a lack of realisation that there would be dissenters. Maybe someone should have thought ‘how are we going to deal with this?’ But I don’t believe there was no plan for reconstruction — it may have been better organised, but it is taking place.”
As for the idea that governments would try to avoid troop deaths by employing Aegis in Darfur, “The industry will resist,” he believes. “It’s not appropriate.” Looking past Lawrence’s bike and into the future, he says: “Maybe in 10 years’ time it could develop into that … but there will always be national sovereign forces working for national governments. It’s just that the private sector will be there to assist and support them.”
Career in Brief
• 1974 — Joined army, 21 SAS
• 1976 — Sandhurst, Scots Guards
• 1982 — Falklands. Becomes major in 1985
• 1986-87 — Company commander in Northern Ireland
• 1990 — Joint planning group Desert Storm
• 1991 — Military assistant to Gen Peter de la Billière
• 1991-93 — Special Forces
• 1994 — MA for Gen Sir Michael Rose in Sarajevo
• 1996 — Leaves army. Sets up Sandline
• 2002 — Chief executive, Aegis