In November 1994, retired Air Force Col. Ron Hatchett received a mysterious phone call from a man he says once supplied the Afghan Mujahadeen with 10,000 mules. The caller claimed to be putting together a “proposal” for the U.S. government and offered Hatchett $100,000 to spend six months advising the Bosnian government in Sarajevo. As a former intelligence officer and arms control negotiator, Hatchett was closely following the Balkan war.
Hatchett turned the caller down because he views U.S. policy in the Balkans as duplicitous. But his offer may not have been so unusual, considering that a private U.S. company called Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) had already established a vital, if shadowy, presence in Croatia.
According to a company brochure, MPRI was founded in 1987 “to bring together former military professionals from all services to perform worldwide corporate contractual functions requiring skills developed from military service.” Based in Alexandria, Va., MPRI at first focused on “doctrine development” in the U.S. army and later signed contracts with the militaries of various other governments, including Sweden and Taiwan. Citing the “very competitive” nature of the business, retired Lieut. Gen. Ed Soyster, vice president of MPRI’s international operations, refuses to disclose the amount of the Croatian deal, nor will he say what other regional powers have sought out MPRI’s services.
The company – which bills itself as “the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world” – appears to have gained its first foothold in the Balkans in March 1994, when Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak appealed to the Pentagon for assistance in training his battered army.
Susak, who as an emigre had run a pizza parlor in Canada, was ostensibly seeking to reorganize the Croatian military for eventual NATO membership. By some accounts, the Pentagon sent Susak to MPRI. Soyster denies such reports: “There was no push from the [U.S.] government.”
In any case, the State Department determined that MPRI’s activities in Croatia would not violate the U.N. arms embargo and issued a license in November 1994. At the same time, Secretary of Defense William Perry signed a military cooperation agreement with Zagreb. According to Soyster, the licensing process took half a year because MPRI’s deal with Susak involved a “new idea” – the “democratization” of the Croatian army.
The Croats, burdened with the legacy of a puppet fascist state in World War II, would seem ideal candidates for tutelage in democracy. But rather than distancing itself from the past excesses of the Ustasha regime, the Croatian government has continued to rule in decidedly undemocratic fashion. Still, the United States saw an opportunity to “level the Balkan playing field” and to establish a U.S. presence in the Balkans while the European powers were still bickering about a common policy.
“We have the credibility of guys who have lived and breathed in a democratic army,” says Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Indeed, MPRI employs some high-profile military retirees, including retired Gen. Carl Vuono, army chief of staff from 1987 to 1992, and retired Gen. Crosbie Saint, commander of the U.S. army in Europe during the Bush administration. Both Vuono and Saint were among the officers MPRI sent to Croatia to convert the “Moscow-Belgrade”-style Croatian army into a civilian-controlled, professional fighting force. In March 1995, MPRI instructors began teaching courses in Zagreb as part of MPRI’s “Democracy Transition Assistance Program.”
But observers of military affairs in the Balkans contend that MPRI’s influence went beyond the classroom. “I think they’re doing more than that,” Paul Beaver, a military analyst with Jane’s Information Group, says of MPRI’s educational mandate. When the Croats retook the Serb-held Krajina region last August, they made a surprising show of force – a resurgence that Beaver attributes in part to MPRI.
Hatchett – the recipient of the mysterious 1994 call from the Afghanis’ mule-broker – agrees with Beaver. “What is the logic that you need that many senior officers in Croatia?” he asks. “Why would [the Croats] pay millions of dollars to have those people there?”
There is no denying, in any event, that MPRI’s involvement came at the peak of a steady arms buildup in Croatia. Like a number of other defense analysts, Beaver says that since 1992, the Croatian army has violated the U.N. arms embargo by amassing an impressive arsenal of military hardware, including attack helicopters, battle tanks and long-range artillery. Most of these weapons are of Soviet make and were allegedly smuggled in from such countries as Hungary, Ukraine and Russia.
Croatian diplomats claim that Zagreb did not breach the embargo. Yet a former general in the Croatian army says that “Croatia had no other way to defend itself,” apart from breaking the embargo. And the general, who prefers to remain anonymous, says Eastern European countries were “desperate to sell huge stocks of weapons” on the black market.
U.S. involvement in Croatia is more difficult to trace, but Washington clearly lent its tacit approval to Croatia’s arms buildup and military adventures in 1995. Referring to the Croatian attack in western Bosnia, Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic has conceded that the Americans did not give the green light, yet “naturally they gave some very strong suggestions … regarding the size of the operation.” After the war’s largest single act of “ethnic cleansing” – at least 150,000 Serbs fled the Krajina last August – the Clinton administration remained silent while the United Nations, Britain and France all condemned the Croatian offensive.
Beaver says that “there is circumstantial evidence to show [MPRI] has been involved in tactics” that Croatia used during the Krajina offensive. The newly reorganized Croats displayed a professionalism “light-years from what they did in the past,” when they were routed by the Serbs in 1991. MPRI’s Soyster says the company could not have played a significant role in the Krajina offensive; only 25 non-commissioned officers had then graduated from its rolls. Soyster does not dispute, however, that Gens. Vuono and Saint were in Zagreb shortly before the assault on Krajina, fulfilling what he calls a routine “policy to send in officers periodically to review the program.”
The former Croatian army general offers only a vague appraisal of MPRI’s role in Croatia: “The function of MPRI has many interpretations and also guesses.” Yet as a commander on the front lines early in Croatia’s war with the Krajina Serbs, he was in a position to observe low-level cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Croatian Ministry of Defense “since the moment Croatia became independent in 1991.” According to the general, American Ambassador Peter Galbraith was “the main factor” in institutionalizing U.S.-Croatian military cooperation.
The general says the United States and Croatia cooperated on another level, namely “certain information which is available to the American military through satellites, air surveillance and unmanned aircraft.”
The United States denies that it shared any intelligence with the Croats. The Clinton administration also denies reports that American planes flew weapons into Bosnia and that the United States has supported such countries as Saudi Arabia in smuggling arms to the Bosnian Muslims. Beaver says that arms dealers pay a 30 percent levy to Croatia for weapons going on to Bosnia. Clinton has long supported lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, despite opposition from NATO allies. Now the Dayton agreement provides for the full, legal rearming of the Balkan belligerents.
Given the bitter course of the Balkan war since 1991, the Croats’ decision to seek legal – and illegal – military aid is understandable. Before the Croatian army’s victories last year, renegade Serbs occupied one-third of Croatia’s territory.
Nevertheless, the often brutal record of Croatian nationalism should cause policy-makers to question whether independent Croatia’s strategic goals are any less expansionist than Serbia’s. Soyster says that MPRI looks carefully at its clients and “is not going to work for a ‘rogue’ government.” He calls Croatia an “emerging democracy.” But the country might be described more accurately as the alter ego of its archenemy, Serbia. Both states maintain democratic pretensions, yet are ruled by strongmen – Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb and Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. Both men fanned the flames of rabid nationalism, targeted internal opposition and all but snuffed out independent media under their rule.
The dream of a Greater Serbia has been shattered, but Greater Croatia lives on. Croatia’s offensives last year put more than a quarter of Bosnia-Herzegovina under its control. The Muslim-Croat Federation in Bosnia outlined in the Dayton agreement is unlikely to last, given increasing tensions between Bosnian Croats and Muslims.
Still, the Clinton administration has pledged $100 million to build up the Bosnian army, and still hopes to raise another $700 million from its allies. Not surprisingly, this is good news for MPRI. The company is currently competing with two other companies – BDM International of McLean, Va., and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego – for the initial training contracts. And as the embargo on the former Yugoslavia is lifted, Soyster anticipates new deals in Croatia involving tactics and weapons training.
The company is also mining other global markets – it has reportedly signed a contract to train the Angolan army after a U.S. policy reversal there.
U.S. foreign policy, often veiled from public scrutiny by the elastic rationales of executive privilege and national security, is now becoming even more difficult to track. It’s no small irony that MPRI, which set out for the Balkans to bring the Croatian military under civilian control, is itself unfettered by public accountability or scrutiny.