The White House is still struggling to come up with an Afghanistan strategy. A long-expected review of the current American commitment to the war-blighted nation has stalled, with President Trump reportedly dissatisfied with the bulk of the solutions offered by his key lieutenants. In that vacuum, Erik Prince — the founder of private security firm Blackwater and brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos — has set about pushing his own plan: Send in the mercenaries.
According to a number of reports, as well as Prince’s own television appearances this week, the proposal involves close to 5,000 private military contractors replacing the U.S. troops currently deployed in support of Afghanistan’s national security forces. Instead of the short-term deployments of U.S. troops, the mercenaries, drawn from a range of Western nations, would be embedded with some 91 Afghan battalions for “the long haul,” reported the Financial Times. Prince also proposed building a private air force with close to 100 aircraft, including fixed-wing jets, attack helicopters and drones, to help compensate for the woes of the fledgling Afghan air force.
Prince argues his plan is a cost-effective alternative to the current U.S. role in Afghanistan, and the privatization scheme has reportedly piqued the interest of White House advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Prince may also have found an eager listener in Trump, who is not happy about the prospect of sending more troops to fight an “unwinnable” war against the Taliban. Why not outsource the job and sweep aside the meddling of Washington wonks, bureaucrats and those ornery rules of engagement that restrict the actions of American troops?
The neocolonial echoes of Prince’s venture are unmistakable, and he doesn’t shy away from them. In a column published earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal, Prince peddled his vision of mercenary companies on the front lines with an American “viceroy” in Kabul calling the shots. He gestured to the history of Britain’s East India Co. in South Asia as a useful precedent, much to the bewilderment of others aware of the company’s history of looting, slaughter and exploitation.
Prince renewed his attempts at historical analogy on Tuesday, casting the company as a cost-effective, low-footprint model: “When the East India Company operated for 200-plus years, they deployed with that model,” he told MSNBC. “One mentor to 20 local troops.”
Prince’s insistence on the comparisons reveals not only historical illiteracy but a simply amoral view of the world.
“In many ways, the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office,” noted Delhi-based historian and author William Dalrymple. “Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”
Prince’s mercenary force would probably be skilled at such violence, but certainly not at helping Afghanistan bolster its government or foster political reconciliation with the Taliban. Afghan leaders would be unlikely to welcome private contractors into their armies so readily, especially given the history of Prince’s old company in Iraq, where its operatives gunned down 14 civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2017.
“Everything we know about successful counterinsurgency tells us that it requires close integration between political goals and forces. It is the tethering of force to common and shared concerns that begin to build its legitimacy and thus the political buy-in on which stable governance is built,” wrote Deborah Avant of the University of Denver. “But with [private military companies] you often trade integration away. This has been particularly true with U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Avant, who points to Prince’s longstanding desire to privatize both NATO and U.N. peacekeeping forces, said his plan “is not just unlikely to improve the United States’ ability to conduct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it reflects entirely different of U.S. goals. Instead of an — albeit flawed — policy aimed at building a legitimate government willing to be part of the international community, this plan aims only to secure resources.” Such as, perhaps, Afghanistan’s lucrative mineral deposits.
An East India Co. 2.0 might not even deliver on its low-budget promises: Analysts suggest that there’s little way to trim costs when it comes to the logistics of deploying forces abroad, be they private contractors or U.S. troops.
“As an ex-military contractor, I cannot think of a worse solution for Afghanistan,” wrote former contractor Sean McFate in the Atlantic.
Of course, few people outside of Prince’s orbit seem enthusiastic for a mercenary war. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have advocated boosting U.S. troop numbers with a “mini-surge” of some 4,000 soldiers, while also further unleashing the military in its campaign against an Islamic State affiliate in the country. Afghanistan’s leaders certainly aren’t having it.
“President Ghani has told me he won’t accept it,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, to The Military Times. “Afghans will never accept this.”
But after 16 fruitless and costly years of war — with the Taliban still commanding large chunks of territory, the government in Kabul hobbled by corruption and infighting, and the numbers of civilian war-related deaths steadily climbing — the Trump administration seems desperate to find new ideas to latch onto.
“To just say we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing, the president is not willing to accept that,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday during an Asian regional summit in Manila. Tillerson added that Trump is “asking some tough questions” about the American role in Afghanistan. He probably won’t like any of the answers.
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