Last month, the CBC’s Judy Trinh filed a story about ex–special forces David Lavery’s efforts to get dozens of people out of Kabul before the Taliban takeover. A founding member of Joint Task Force 2, an elite branch of Canada’s armed forces primarily tasked with counterterrorism, Lavery coordinated with veterans to help over a hundred individuals with Canadian papers flee the South Central Asian nation.
The story reads like a made-for-TV action movie. Beneath the confected heroics lies a far more troubling narrative about the Wild West of private-security profiteering. This is a story that Canada’s mainstream media refuses to give the light of day.
Private Security, Public Money
Throughout the disastrous twenty-year-long war in Afghanistan, Canada has been heavily reliant on private security companies (PSCs) to aid the war effort. Despite the prevalence of PSCs in the North American nation’s operations in Afghanistan, their presence has garnered barely any media attention. Canadians are largely ignorant of this controversial element of the foreign occupation.
Media narratives about Lavery have mentioned that he operated the PSC Raven Rae Consultancy Services, which employed some fifty Afghan nationals. News outlets have, however, refrained from focusing on Lavery’s company with the same level of attention they have applied to his heroics.
According to its site, Raven Rae began its operations in Afghanistan in 2010. It was one of the thousands of PSCs that entered Afghanistan during the US and NATO occupation. Private security industry researcher Anna Powles has gone so far as to say that Afghanistan “has been a gravy train for the global private security industry for the past two decades.”
So integral were PSCs to the day-to-day running of military operations in Afghanistan that a former senior US commander remarked that their departure “led to the erosion of the capability of the Afghan Air Force.” In the same interview, the anonymous ex-military official added that without the “ultimate security” of the military, these private armies had no choice but to withdraw.
At the height of Canada’s thirteen-year military mission in Afghanistan, Saladin, DynCorp, and other PSCs had larger numbers of armed men at their disposal than most of the NATO countries occupying the country. In 2008, Canadian brigadier-general Denis Thompson explained:
Without private security firms it would be impossible to achieve what we are achieving here. There are many aspects of the mission here in Afghanistan, many security aspects that are performed by private security firms that which, if they were turned over to the military, would make our task impossible. We just don’t have the numbers to do everything.
The federal government spent tens of millions of dollars on PSCs. They paid $10 million for private security to guard Canada’s signature $50 million aid project — the repair of the Dahla Dam in Kandahar province. The federal government also contracted Saladin to protect its embassy in Kabul. Saladin was the same company that helped secure Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a visit in 2007 and was charged with the protection of forward operating bases in Kandahar province.
Saladin has a history that should worry anyone concerned with the dangers of privately owned militaries. Its predecessor, Keenie Meenie Services, trained and possibly equipped Islamic insurgents battling Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was also implicated in covert operations in Nicaragua as part of the Iran-Contra Affair.
Lawless Hatchet Men
Private security firms in Afghanistan are poorly regulated. The large numbers of armed men from different areas make locals feel insecure. Part of the reason for this is that many Afghans believe PSCs have participated in crime.
Locals told Swiss Peace Foundation researchers that PSCs behaved in a “cowboy-like” manner. After a Canadian officer was killed by a PSC employee in August 2008, Canadian major Corey Frederickson dismissed the episode, explaining that the “normal contact drill [for PSCs] is that as soon as they get hit with something then it’s . . . open up on anything that moves.”
Many former Canadian soldiers owned or worked for PSCs in Afghanistan. For example, Tundra Group, founded “in the mid-2000s by Canadian military veterans,” protected forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Toronto company Globe Risk Holdings had offices in Kabul and Kandahar. It hired former Canadian soldiers, as did Vancouver’s Canpro Global, which also had an office in Afghanistan.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq helped propel Montreal-based GardaWorld to the position of the world’s largest PSC. In recent weeks, hundreds of the Montreal company’s employees have been evacuated from Afghanistan. With over a hundred thousand employees worldwide, Garda regularly advertises in Esprit de Corps, calling on the magazine’s Canadian Forces readership to “translate your military skills into a GardaWorld career.”
The upper echelons of Garda are teamed by former Canadian officers. The head of Garda’s Afghan operations, Daniel Ménard, previously commanded Canadian Forces operations in Afghanistan. Ménard has been court-martialed for having sexual relations with a subordinate in Afghanistan and recklessly discharging his weapon. Ménard’s work for Garda in Afghanistan earned him a reputation as a controversial figure. In 2014, he was jailed for allegedly smuggling guns. Two years earlier, two other Garda employees in Afghanistan were caught with dozens of unlicensed AK-47 rifles and jailed for three months.
Garda has been involved in numerous violent incidents in Afghanistan. In 2019, three children were among a dozen killed when a minibus full of explosives crashed into a Garda SUV carrying foreign nationals in Kabul. That same year, the Taliban attacked the complex where Garda’s offices were located in an incident that left thirty dead. The Kathmandu Post reported that Garda illegally shortchanged the family of a Nepalese employee killed in the attack.
Because of the lack of regulations constraining Canadian PSCs’ international operations, their conduct is hardly ever challenged. Experts in international law have noted that, unlike the United States and South Africa,
Canada does not have legislation designed to regulate either the services provided by Canadian PMSCs [private military security companies] operating outside of Canada or the conduct of Canadian citizens working for foreign PMSCs.
Ottawa has not signed the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. Furthermore, it had little involvement with the UN Human Rights Council’s working group on the use of mercenaries.
The foreign military pullout and Taliban capture of Kabul has decimated the large PSC industry in Afghanistan. Most Afghans are likely happy to see the end of private mercenary forces and hired guns dominating their country. In Canada, however, the negative features of PSC deployment in the country have gone largely unreported by the media. The CBC — among other news outlets — owes Canadians a discussion about the role private security forces played in Afghanistan.