Erik Prince deserves a chance to do what the military can’t
Erik Prince, the owner of the former Blackwater security company, has proposed that the U.S. military outsource the air war in Afghanistan to him. Gen. John Nicholson, who currently commands the NATO effort in the war, has apparently refused to give the Prince proposal an airing. The president reportedly is not happy with the progress of the war and wants to fire Gen. Nicholson, who would be the second American commander to be sacked in the war’s nearly 16 years. If I were Gen. Nicholson, I’d give Mr. Prince a fair hearing.
The Afghans are not doing well in the war largely because their air force cannot support the army adequately of the ground. After nearly two decades of American “advice and assistance,” the Afghan Air Force is a mess. Instead of fixing the problem, the Americans have shored the Afghans up with close air support and other patchwork fixes that have failed. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, the high command in Kabul is certifiable.
Instead of dismissing Mr. Prince outright, Gen. Nicholson should have requested a proposal that would require Mr. Prince to come up with a plan that would make the Afghan Air Force self-sufficient in a certain time frame if he desires to see a profit from his efforts. That would not just mean providing the Afghan troops with close air support. It would require Mr. Prince and his company to train the mechanics and air crews of the Afghan Air Force to maintain the transport aircraft and helicopters needed to provide resupply and medical evacuation to Afghan soldiers scattered over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain.
Mr. Prince’s profit-oriented approach is an outside-the-box, commercial solution to a hard problem that has eluded the U.S. military. It won’t win the war by itself, but it could provide a key solution to the supply-and-support problem that has dogged Afghan forces since President Obama prematurely tried to hand the war over to them on an arbitrary timeline.
Our generals have lacked the imagination to tell the administration that something new and different from sending in more uniformed advisers should be tried. We are in an Afghan war that is not be going to won by merely defeating the enemy on the battlefield. The Taliban can draw from a nearly limitless supply of tribal youth bent on revenge for the deaths of relatives and friends.
The Afghan stalemate will only be broken when the various factions that make up the Taliban realize two things. First, that they are not strong enough to capture the major population centers of Afghanistan as they did in the late ‘90s; and second, that they are losing ground to a far more dangerous enemy in the form of ISIS than they face in the Afghan government. Until the Afghan security forces stop losing ground, the Taliban will continue to hope the government will crack. If its forces can adequately hold and retake ground, the possibility exists that the government and the local insurgents can make common cause to fight the real foreign-inspired threat that ISIS represents. The Taliban don’t want to attack the American homeland or Europe, but ISIS does.
Afghanistan should not be an American “forever war.” Whatever its faults, the government of Afghanistan must eventually become responsible for its internal security. The United States will need to supplement its defense costs, but the Afghans eventually need to do their own fighting with their own people. Our eventual military mission in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere should be limited to counterterrorism against al Qaeda, ISIS and other violent extremist groups that are plotting against the American homeland. If Mr. Prince can come up with a plan to help us do that and make a buck at the same time, good for him.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who served as a Department of State civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan and as a contractor in Afghanistan.