Three months into his presidency, President Trump deployed America’s largest non-nuclear bomb to attack ISIS in Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. The international uproar was instant. Despite that many analysts believe the Taliban to be a greater threat in Afghanistan than ISIS, Trump opted to follow up his poorly vetted airstrike in Syria by targeting the latter in a display of military-industrial chest thumping. Additionally, his recent decision to send several thousand more US troops to Afghanistan was accompanied by the unexpected decision to delegate military strategy the Pentagon.
While some have cited the dangers of redistributing power reserved for the President alone, others fear that he may be attempting to preempt culpability for the escalating conflict in Afghanistan and its associated dealings. Trump’s ignorance and inexperience pose great risk in foreign entanglements, not simply for the direct damage he may cause to international relations, but also for the ethical vacuum he may create via his failure to grasp the intricacies of statecraft and military strategy. That he has staffed his cabinet with cronies and opportunists is a further sign of this administration’s vulnerability to exploitation by individuals from whom Trump expects loyalty.
Erik Prince is one such opportunist. The brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Prince is best known for founding Blackwater, a private-security giant that has supplied hundreds of thousands of mercenaries to the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. These days, however, he is equally infamous as a backroom international power broker. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Prince called on Mr. Trump directly to fix America’s failing approach in Afghanistan. Leaving backrooms behind, he publically details his alternative strategy inspired by the Dutch East India Company’s “presidency armies,” in which local recruits were trained and led by European soldiers for hire. Above all, Prince emphasizes the need to appoint an independent and powerful “viceroy” to run all Afghan operations who would report solely to the US President with existing oversight and checks on authority removed.
THE MACARTHUR MODEL
A significant red flag in Erik Prince’s new Afghanistan model is its namesake, General Douglas MacArthur. Prince speaks admiringly yet selectively of MacArthur’s role in administering occupied Japan following WWII, vaguely casting him as a democratizing figure. It is perhaps telling that Prince neglects to recount that, while many have praised MacArthur for his savvy in respecting the political culture of imperial Japan while quietly shifting the balance of power away from the emperor, he also cultivated personal power aggressively, accumulating an enormous staff, exceeding his budget, and disregarding rebukes from Congress. This foreshadowed MacArthur’s later actions in Korea (also unmentioned), when his abuse of authority reached the point of insubordination in an attempt to catalyze direct military confrontation with China.
Against a backdrop of eight years of Obama’s frequently weak foreign policy followed by Trump’s latest idea to “let the warfighters fight the war,” Prince’s revisionist presentation of the MacArthur era carries a familiar subtext of conservative nationalism predicated upon military might. It is certainly no coincidence that Prince chose to invoke the post-WWII era, in which America rose to prominence as the world’s first superpower, suggesting both belief in American decline and the possibility of restoration.
On the surface, Prince’s pitch to delegate the Afghan war may not seem like a substantial departure from current strategy; as of 2016, 75% of US forces in Afghanistan were contracted. However, in practice, his changes would signify a seismic shift in US operations, particularly given the unprecedented replacement of the diplomatic and military apparatus by a single appointed viceroy. What is more, this viceroy’s authority would be enforced by mercenaries, who generally function beyond both the prosecution and protection of current international and humanitarian law. In addition to the overtly exploitative history of European colonial practice in 18th-century India from which Prince drew inspiration, the implementation of this modern presidency army bears further troubling resemblance to the battalions of locally recruited fighters in Syria, which many foreign countries, including the US, supplied with training, arms, and intelligence in order to represent their interests in the civil war.
In essence, Prince has created a model for carrying the US further into the world of proxy warfare. By capitalizing on Trump’s disregard for ethics and ignorance of statecraft and military operations, as well as exploiting the ambiguous legal status of mercenaries in international conflict, Prince has envisaged a degree of separation between the US government and the war in Afghanistan that could potentially enable America to engage on foreign soil with the same degree of impunity as the states responsible for the overwhelming destruction in Aleppo, Sana’a, or Benghazi. For a man who made his name in war profiteering, an ungoverned showdown between major military powers in a thus far unwinnable territory in which America has already invested 16 years is a golden business opportunity. However, for Afghanistan and its embattled population, as well as the actors vying for a foothold within its borders, the prospects are far more bleak.
AFGHANISTAN: GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
The situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly volatile as Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan have sided against Afghanistan and India in favor of supporting the Taliban to eliminate ISIS. However, the dynamic between these powers has grown increasingly unstable in the years since President Obama announced plans to withdraw US troops, signaling the country’s susceptibility to greater conflict. Russia, for example, has taken to distributing arms along CSTO borders with Afghanistan, particularly to high-risk Tajikistan, as well as conducting joint military drills in Central Asia with SCO and CSTO states. Evidence of Chinese troops conducting patrols with Afghan forces have been countered by reports of Iranian and Russian advisers collaborating with the Taliban in western Afghanistan. Moreover, economic expansion in the region has fueled rivalry between allies, particularly in light of major developments like China’s Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). On the other hand, Russia’s worsening economic crisis and falling oil prices are threatening the country’s viability in industries it has traditionally dominated, raising questions of whether Moscow might attempt to compensate through military competition or perhaps inflate the conflict to boost its arms sales.
Like MacArthur before him, Prince’s Afghan viceroy would have the opportunity to provoke these standing tensions into direct conflict with America’s most popular conservative scapegoats: China, Russia, Iran, and Islamic terrorism. Like never before, however, the US presence in Afghanistan would be “liberated” from its bureaucratic checks and balances to engage on the same terms as these parties have done in places like Syria, Yemen, and Libya. This modern era of proxy wars has seen states employ illegal weapons, target civilians, facilitate extremist groups, and deploy mercenary battalions, all for competitive edge. The prospect of such a multinational proxy war developing atop Afghanistan’s existing political and infrastructural problems stands poised to generate a large-scale humanitarian crisis and conflict that could easily prove far more destructive and impossible to resolve than the current 16-year conflict already has. Additionally, Prince’s insistence on recruiting forces locally, yet abandoning a population-centric strategy could severely exacerbate well-known ethnic divisions and conflicts in Afghan society, further undercutting the country’s prospects and means of meeting the population’s most basic needs for survival.
Prince has generated a model that equates success with brutality and forgives any and all collateral damage. He advocates that America, insecure in its world standing, meet challenges with unbridled warfare, rather than adjust its mindset and strategically develop relations among competing countries, as a wiser statesman might do. Moreover, he proposes to do this in Afghanistan, an all too frequent frontier for imperial power grabs throughout its history. Rudyard Kipling referred to this phenomenon as “the Great Game,” while others know the country as the “graveyard of empires,” for the many world powers that found ruin on its steppes. Prince echoes this same colonialist perspective towards Afghanistan, viewing it not as a nation in its own right, but rather as a theater for staging power plays and profitable ventures.
“AMERICA THE GREAT” GAME
That Erik Prince has dared present his MacArthur model publically speaks to the state of the US under the Trump administration. Saber rattling at a time when popular support for the president is staggeringly low is hardly surprising. Yet Prince goes unprecedentedly beyond that, issuing a call to transfer strategic power from a president who has proved unfit for the tasks, as well as from Congress and national-security institutions, while shamelessly exploiting the constitutional infirmities and legal ambiguities of the modern age. His revisionist presentation of America as the once and future superpower is merely a sales pitch, hawking an affectation of greatness for an administration in which it is sorely lacking.
In the first six months of Trump’s presidency, his attempts to skirt liability for unsavory associations with foreign governments have been the focus of extensive debate and now federal investigation. His consistent patterns of evasiveness, unfitness for office, cronyism, and susceptibility to corruption and manipulation have only worsened. Now, with Erik Prince as a known adviser openly calling for the parsing of presidential power, Trump has begun moving to delegate the responsibility of lighting a dangerous fuse in Afghanistan yet again. This battle cry of “Make America Great Again” rings hollow, but its proponents are right about one thing. America can and must do better.