Is the U.S. Facilitating the Use of Mercenaries in Yemen?

by William D. Hartung

The recent New York Times report that the United Arab Emirates is paying, arming, and training retired soldiers from Colombia and other Latin American countries to fight in Yemen marks a troubling turning point in the evolution of the current generation of Mideast wars. The use of mercenaries to fight battles that a country’s own citizens are loathe to engage in lifts yet another barrier to the prosecution and escalation of wars in the region.

One question for Congress and the Obama administration is whether U.S. arms and training programs have helped to facilitate these rogue activities. All of the parties to the transaction—including ex-Colombian, Panamanian, Chilean, and Salvadoran soldiers—come from countries that have received extensive U.S. military training programs for decades.

According to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM), during the Obama years alone, the United States has trained a total of 30,000 military personnel from the four countries represented in the UAE’s mercenary force, with over two-thirds coming from Colombia. It would be useful to know how many of those 30,000 have sold their skills to the UAE to fight alongside their troops in Yemen. For example, the United States trained Oscar Garcia Batte, who runs the company that recruits ex-Colombian soldiers for the UAE. Batte is now fighting with the first Colombian unit to deploy to Yemen alongside UAE troops.

The military of the United Arab Emirates, which is training the Latin American mercenary force, has also received training from the United States. U.S. personnel have trained over 4,000 Emirati troops since 2009. In addition, many of the weapons the mercenary force is being trained to use, including M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, night vision devices, and armored vehicles, have most likely come from the United States, given Washington’s central role in supplying the UAE’s military.

How U.S. military training is ultimately used should be taken into account in deciding how extensive these training programs should be, and what countries should be recipients. The Leahy law, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), prohibits U.S. assistance to units of foreign militaries when there is credible evidence that they have engaged in major human rights abuses. But these restrictions have a limited impact on the sheer numbers of foreign troops trained by the United States. Statistics compiled by the Security Assistance monitor show that 168 countries have received military training from the United States since 2009.

Once a mercenary force has been developed, it may not only be used for foreign conflicts. One of the original missions of the foreign troops trained by the Emiratis was to “put down riots” in the camps in the UAE that house mistreated foreign workers. Interestingly, U.S. contractors in Saudi Arabia might be called upon some day for similar duty. The kingdom’s main internal security force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), has long been trained by the U.S.-based Vinnell Corporation, which is now part of Northrop Grumman.

There are other U.S. connections. The New York Times has reported that Americans are currently based in the camps where the mercenaries are being trained, and the company that originally ran the training program before handing it over to the Emirati military was connected to a U.S. citizen, Erik Prince, who is infamous for his role as CEO of Blackwater. The involvement of Prince and his American colleagues in this work should have involved sign-off by the State Department, which licenses foreign training activities.

There is a larger picture to be considered as well. The United States legitimized the widespread use of retired military personnel to provide support for military interventions when it used tens of thousands of private contractors from all over the world in a wide variety of roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge now is how to cope with the world that U.S. policies have helped create.

It is not clear how Washington can best exert leverage to curb mercenary activities that make it easier to start wars and harder to end them. But one place to start would be for Congress to look more closely at U.S. military training programs, who they train, and where those personnel end up. And proposed regulations that would allow U.S. sales of some forms of private military training without a license—and therefore with little or no monitoring by the U.S. government—should be reconsidered. Washington gave a huge boost to the private contracting industry when it spent billions on these companies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It now has a responsibility to help rein them in.

Photo of Blackwater mercenaries courtesy of stock picker via Flickr

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor.

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