KANDAHAR AIRFIELD -- The man in the photo below spent nearly three decades in the Canadian military, and then, working for the private military company Skylink, three years as de facto commander of the African Union's air force. When I met him at dawn in Kandahar, his current place of business, he had already nearly finished sending his fleet of helicopters out on their daily appointed rounds. He had also already lit up his first Cohiba of the day, and smoked it nearly down to the butt.
Bob Waring runs Kandahar's branch of Skylink, which carries military cargo all over southern Afghanistan. His business responds directly, and with remarkable efficiency, to the central logistical challenge of the war: the roadside bomb. Convoys keep getting attacked and blown up, and even when they spot an IED and have time to handle it, they can be delayed for many hours at a time. Skylink faces no such problems. Each morning a gaggle of white helicopters, all ex-Soviet models with Eastern-bloc crews hardened by years flying in the worst conditions on earth, take off and ferry equipment to bases in the region. They fly tactically, and they know what it's like to get shot at, because some of the pilots remember the terrain from a certain grittier war that lasted from 1979 to 1989.
By now everyone is familiar -- not to say comfortable -- with the pseudo-mercenary outfits like Blackwater and Triple Canopy, which replicate the functions of the military, but as private entities. Many even accept that these companies often do good and laudable work more efficiently than any government. What is less well understood is how fully private companies have proliferated to fill military functions other than those of ground-based shooters and personal security details. As ground movements have become messier and more dangerous, emphasis has shifted to air power, both among militaries and the companies that support them.