Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said administration officials are mulling the proposal by businessman and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince to surge private security contractors into Afghanistan to take over duties currently performed by U.S. troops.
“The strategic decisions have not been made, but — I don’t know how to put this — I think that’s all I want to say,” Mattis told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. “The strategic decision has not been made.”
The defense secretary added, “It’s part of the options being considered. And the president’s open to the advice of the secretary of state, and myself and the director of the CIA,” referring to Rex Tillerson at State and Mike Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Prince, who founded the private security firm Blackwater that was later renamed Xe Services and then Academi, first shared his idea for Afghanistan in a May 31 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan,” which called for consolidating authority into a viceroy who would lead coalition efforts in the country.
This month, he released more details about the plan to the news media.
The proposal calls for deploying 5,500 private contractors, mostly former commandos, to advise Afghan forces, along with a 90-aircraft private air force to provide close-air support, according to an Aug. 8 article by USA Today’s Jim Michaels.
The U.S. military currently has more than 8,000 service members in Afghanistan and more than 23,500 contractors, including nearly 1,700 armed contractors, according to a July report from U.S. Central Command.
Mattis had pledged to deliver a new strategy for Afghanistan by mid-July that would rely on increased air power and would also address the long-standing request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support Mission, for an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
However, the Mattis plan has been held up as the White House reviews the entire Afghanistan mission amid reports that top advisers to Trump have been recommending a scaled-down U.S. operation — one that could possibly include Prince’s contractor proposal.
On Monday, Mattis said, “We are close” to a decision on a new strategy for Afghanistan and added, “if there were an increase [in security contractors], we’d tell you there’s going to be an increase. We might not tell you which specific number’s going where. But no, I mean we’d be — we’d be open about — transparent about that.”
He added, “The only things that we’re going to conceal are things that would directly help the enemy. But otherwise, we’re proud of what we do and we’ll tell you.”
— Richard Sisk contributed to this report.