When Erik Prince, the notorious founder of Blackwater, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in June calling for an American viceroy in Afghanistan to lead a contracted military force (aka, mercenaries), the idea was widely lambasted. The Trump Administration, however, seems to be taking the idea quite seriously. As USA Today reports:
The White House is actively considering a bold plan to turn over a big chunk of the U.S. war in Afghanistan to private contractors in an effort to turn the tide in a stalemated war, according to the former head of a security firm pushing the project.
Under the proposal, 5,500 private contractors, primarily former Special Operations troops, would advise Afghan combat forces. The plan also includes a 90-plane private air force that would provide air support in the nearly 16-year-old war against Taliban insurgents, Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater security firm, told USA TODAY. [….]
The plan remains under serious consideration within the White House despite misgivings by Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Other White House officials, such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon, appear open to using private contractors.
Before considering the merits, it’s worth considering the man. Erik Prince has a bad reputation for a reason. In Iraq, Blackwater was accused of using force recklessly. One of the most infamous examples, in which 14 Iraqi civilians were killed and another 17 injured, is still being adjudicated. He has been investigated for money laundering and has been more than happy to sell his services to various governments of less than pristine reputation. The largest shareholder in his current venture, Frontier Services Group, is the Chinese state-owned conglomerate Citic Group. While he is a known quantity whose companies have received billions of dollars from the U.S. government, the level of access he has received, including a bizarre backchannel meeting in the Seychelles, raises questions of nepotism: Would Prince be taken as seriously by the Administration if he weren’t Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s brother? Maybe, but it makes the connection no less troubling.
And even on the merits, his proposal has met with skepticism from the “adult” wing of Trump’s advisers, Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. And rightly so. Prince’s op-ed points to many long-standing objections to the U.S. approach in Afghanistan that will resonate with readers familiar with the conflict. He points to the high turnover rate for U.S. commanders (17 in the past 15 years), a problem which has jokingly been summarized as the United States not having fought in Afghanistan for 16 years, but fighting for one year 16 times. He correctly identifies that the key to U.S. withdrawal will be to stand up the Afghan security forces, and that the long term viability of the Afghan economy will likely depend on their ability to exploit Afghanistan’s vast and largely untapped natural resources.
While his overview of the problems and objectives may be sound, his solution is a bait and switch. In interviews, Prince tries to normalize his proposed privatization of the conflict by noting that 26,000 contractors are already present in Afghanistan. In using the Orwellian construct of “contractor” to describe what his own company does, he elides the fact that the vast majority of those contractors are in unarmed support roles like logistics, maintenance, and construction. Of the small percentage of armed contractors, most are involved in simple security, with only about 800 involved in training activities. Prince’s proposal then would not simply involve re-tasking existing contractors; it would involve a massive increase in the number of armed contractors and a fundamental change in their mission.
It is also worth noting how few armed contractors would even be willing to do this kind of work. The world’s largest private security contractors, companies like Gardaworld and G4S, though they often recruit the same kind of ex-special forces operators to run their in-country operations that Prince does, simply don’t do this kind of work.
Prince’s proposal also raises worrying issues of sovereignty. Arguably the most successful use of mercenaries in a recent conflict, the Nigerian government’s hiring of mostly South African mercenaries in the fight against Boko Haram, was contracted by the government of Nigeria itself. In Prince’s proposal, the Afghan mercenary army would be contracted to the U.S. government. Under what jurisdiction would these mercenaries be tried when the inevitable civilian casualties occur? Would the U.S. guarantee them some degree of immunity from Afghan law as is afforded to U.S. troops? Using U.S. troops may be expensive, but at least part of the expense is the result of responsibility that the U.S. bears in using military force in a foreign country. The ubiquitous insertion of lawyers into the American way of war is problematic; their removal could be disastrous.
What’s more, Prince’s proposed Afghan “viceroy” sounds an awful lot like an official who would be empowered to supersede the Afghan government. The Afghan government is a corrupt mess, but does the U.S. really want to dismiss its power and authority entirely? The optics of doing so would be disastrous in a region with a long memory and abiding hatred of British colonial rule. Prince has said that the title doesn’t matter, but his use of the word and references to the East India Company taint the proposal with colonialism regardless of what you call it.
It’s true that the war in Afghanistan may not be going well. But privatizing the war as a cost-saving exercise is not just of questionable efficacy; it is a renunciation of our responsibilities as a constitutional nation-state. Its not for nothing that King George’s use of Hessian mercenaries was cited among the causes for separation in the Declaration of Independence:
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
Erik Prince might not be a product of the most barbarous ages, but turning to mercenaries to win the fight in Afghanistan would be a vulgar precedent for a country that ought to be above such things.