A decade ago, I found myself in a precarious position. I was in Burundi, sipping a Coke with Domitien Ndayizeye, the country’s then-president, U.S. Ambassador Jim Yellin, and several others. We had an emerging catastrophe on our hands.
Ten years earlier, the Rwandan genocide left a trail of ash and tears in its wake, claiming 800,000 lives in 90 days—nearly a soul a minute. Since then, Rwanda had recovered, but neighboring Burundi remained at war with itself, ravaged by infighting with Hutus massacring Tutsis and vice versa. In 2004, the United States had intelligence that Hutu extremists wanted to trigger a new genocide that would end Tutsis once and for all. My job, in collaboration with everyone sipping Cokes in the president’s living room, was to prevent this, without anyone outside the room knowing it was a U.S.-led effort. And succeed we did. The Hutu rebels attacked the capital in November 2004, in an attempt to assassinate the president and spark mass killing. A fierce night battle erupted in the streets of Bujumbura, and the extremists were killed or beaten back into the jungles of the Congo.
What made my presence in that room notable: I was not a member of the CIA. Nor was I covert U.S. military operative or government employee. I came, instead, from the private sector––a contractor to many, a mercenary to some.
Burundi was but one of my numerous assignments. I helped raise a new army in Liberia, bought and shipped weapons from eastern Europe to Africa, and shaped the environment in difficult places. My experience was hardly a unique one, and has actually grown more common in the years since I left Burundi. U.S. Special Operations Forces, for instance, have contractors working in Syria, performing tasks ranging from intelligence analysis to warzone logistics and possibly training foreign fighters, as they once did in Iraq.