August 12, 2017
Amid ongoing White House discord, President Trump is reportedly weighing Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s proposal for a private mercenary force in Afghanistan. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says that would be a disaster
Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy Lawrence Wilkerson’s last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. Erik prince is the world’s most famous private mercenary. His former company Blackwater is mired in controversy and most notably was responsible for a massacre of civilians in Iraq’s Nisour Square. Well, after many years in exile, Prince is back on the scene and he’s trying to sell President Trump on a private mercenary force for Afghanistan. ERIK PRINCE: Entering at the ground level, air support, and government support, those three things I lay out in that plan that basically puts a patch, it puts training wheels on the Afghan forces and keeps them upright and it would set the stage for the draw down of the 9,000 Americans and 26,000 other contractors to go from 45 billion in spend to less than 10, that supports your Afghan and it keeps US special operation forces there as well.AARON MATE: That was Erik Prince speaking to CBS. Now, according to the Financial Times, CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently visited Afghanistan in part to consider Prince’s proposal and how it could fit into US strategy there. That strategy has been under debate inside the White House and has fueled an apparent rift between Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and National Security Advisor HR McMaster. I’m joined now by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, welcome.LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be here. AARON MATE: When you here Prince make that proposal, what are your thoughts?LARRY WILKERSON: My thoughts go back to the London Financial Times, which I think you were citing, maybe six or seven months ago, and my astonishment that they published an op-ed by Erik Prince suggesting in gist that he would take care of the Libyan refugee problem for Europe. In fact, suggesting that he might take care of all the refugee problems for Europe and he would do it for a lot less money than it was costing them to capture, not capture, but actually save some of these refugees at sea in the Mediterranean and deal with them through the legal processes and so forth. One could open a parenthesis and say, he was going to stop them at the Libyan end as it were. Here’s a guy who basically runs a private army, let’s face it, it is a private army. It’s like the British East India Company back in the old days of the British Empire, for example. Suggesting to the European Union that he’s going to save them money by stopping the refugee flow from Libya. One could imagine how he’s going to do that. I would say the same thing pertains to Afghanistan. I wouldn’t touch this with a 10 foot pole but then I’m not the Trump administration.AARON MATE: Can you talk about this proposal being floated by Prince in the context of what’s a widely reported internal rift inside the White House over Afghanistan? You have President Trump and Steve Bannon reportedly voicing their doubts about US strategy there. Trump apparently floating an idea to replace General Nicholson, who’s the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and people like HR McMaster pushing back against that. This issue getting so explosive that apparently McMaster and Bannon recently got into a shouting match and had to be separated.LARRY WILKERSON: I have to imagine that any sane and sober military professional, and I assume that Kelly and McMaster and Mattis are, would object to this sort of privatization of the ultimate public function, roar. Because that’s what it really is. Let’s just look back on Erik Prince a little bit here and let’s examine what’s happening with regard to his status in the Trump administration. He’s very directly connected to members of the Trump administration and you might have missed, I almost did, a friend sent it to me, a court in the United States just overturned the conviction of the principle perpetrator of what was really a homicide, or a series of homicides at Nisour Square in Iraq. You mentioned that earlier, Blackwater was involved in this, a heinous violation of all the rules of war, if you will, and basically what appeared to be a massacre in that square by Blackwater of innocent Iraqi civilians. That individual was convicted of a form of homicide and now apparently a US court has overturned that. I’d want to look into that really closely if I were examining this administration and the context that Erik Prince has with it. Was there any undue influence brought to bear of that? This is not a savory organization, this is a very unsavory organization. I can imagine that McMaster, Kelly, Mattis, and other people who are sane would object to it’s being even considered for something like taking over responsibilities in Afghanistan.AARON MATE: According to many reports, including that Financial Times report that I mentioned that said that Pompeo, the director of the CIA, has gone to Afghanistan in part to assess the viability of Erik Prince’s plan for a private force. Given that, what do you think the Pentagon would do if President Trump takes Erik Prince’s advice and actually tries to implement it?LARRY WILKERSON: Well, first of all, let me say that Pompeo is, and this is really saying something because we’ve had some really scurrilous characters in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency but he probably leads the list of amateurs, scurrilous, politically motivated and so forth, of all those directors that we’ve had. I wouldn’t give you two cents for Mike Pompeo. He scares me, frightens me. His political positions particularly frighten me. The CIA director should not be taking political positions. Trump seems to have no problem with it. I would expect that there would be a real gap open up between professional military and those who are proposing Erik Prince have any responsibilities of significance in Afghanistan or in any other combat zone. I mean, this is truly a threat to the very essence of what the American military establishment stands for. As I said before, think about this for a moment. This is privatizing the ultimate public function, war. Killing people for state purposes and putting your own people at risk for those same purposes. That’s what war is all about, it’s the ultimate public function, and we’re going to privatize it? AARON MATE: It’s a great question and it’s an ominous prospect. Let me ask you, Colonel.LARRY WILKERSON: It is indeed. AARON MATE: Let me ask you, finally, what do you make of this internal rift that we’re seeing right now and the apparent sort of contradiction here, where on the one hand people like Steve Bannon are described as being somewhat antiwar, him and President Trump are reportedly the ones pushing against a troop surge in Afghanistan, of course, at the same time as they float this idea of a private military force, so it’s not as if they’re exactly pro peace, but at the same time as they do voice resistance to adding more troops to Afghanistan as people like McMaster want to do, they’re at the same time pushing confrontation with Iran, what do you make of this sort of puzzling duality here?LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t think it’s as puzzling as perhaps others might think and part of the reasons I say that is because I’ve just finished Bloomberg’s Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain, which is about Bannon and Trump and how they came to be together and Robert Mercer, the billionaire behind them, and so forth. I think what you’ve just expressed could be clarified this way, Bannon is not necessarily against using the military. He’s not necessarily against war. He feels like that we ought to be conserving that military to use in the ultimate war, and the ultimate war for Bannon is against Islam. The ultimate war for Bannon begins with Iran as the, in his view, most nefarious representative of Islam but I suspect it extends across the entire Islamic world. That’s Bannon’s desire, so Afghanistan or any place else for that matter we might use the military [inaudible 00:09:03] takes away from that, it conflicts with that desire to concentrate on this clash of civilizations which he seems to think is existential for the United States. Almost the way it was in Spain when the Muslims were finally stopped and Europe was quote, saved, unquote, from Islam. I think that’s the real division here and McMaster is a little bit more, as is Mattis and Kelly probably, they’re a little bit more circumspect about what conflicts they pick, what enemies they want to fight, where they want to use the military and so forth. They’re proponents of the imperial reign, there’s no question of that. All three of them are very good disciples of the empire but they are more circumspect about where they would fritter away that empire’s military power. I don’t think they want to take the entire 1.4, 1.5 billion strong Muslim world on, that would be tantamount to insanity and so they’re going to be against Bannon and I think it’s fair to say that Bannon does border on the kind of thinking that I would attribute to a Leon Trotsky or even Vladimir Lenin. He’s a radical, an extraordinarily extreme radical. I would think that the military professionals in and around the White House would be vehemently opposed to him and so he’s vehemently opposed to them because they stand in his way of doing what he wants to do and using Trump to do it.AARON MATE: Colonel, finally, if you could predict where you think Trump is going to go on this, although I know that’s difficult given his erratic behavior. Is he going to go with Bannon and Prince and the Blackwater plan, with more private forces, or is he going to go with Mattis and McMaster and call for even more US forces inside Afghanistan?LARRY WILKERSON: Well, you might throw DeVos I there too, another cabinet officer who’s directly connected with Erik Prince.AARON MATE: His sister, right.LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah. Look, it’s anybody’s guess with Trump. There is a certain feeling that Trump listens to the last person who gets to him. If Bannon gets to him last or McMaster gets to him last, that could be what decides it. I’m hoping though, that what decides it is a clear look at what US interests are and how they might be damaged by some of these things that, in particular, Bannon wants to do and that Trump will pull back from the brink, so to speak on these things and not do them. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out and I’m very worried about it.AARON MATE: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, thank you.LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Aaron.AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.