Private military contractors have spotted an opportunity as America’s longest war grinds on.
Here’s a crazy idea floating around Washington these days, outlandish even by today’s outlandish standards: The United States should hire a mercenary army to “fix” Afghanistan, a country where we’ve been at war since 2001, spending billions along the way. The big idea here is that they could extricate U.S. soldiers from this quagmire, and somehow solve it.
Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.
It could get worse. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Prince laid out a plan whereby the fighting force would be led by an American viceroy who would report directly to Trump. Modeled after General Douglas MacArthur, who ruled Japan after World War II, the viceroy would consolidate all American power in a single person. His mission: Do whatever it takes to pacify Afghanistan. No more backseat driving of the war from pesky bureaucrats in Washington, or restrictive rules of engagement imposed on soldiers. An American viceroy with a privatized fighting force would make trains run on time in Afghanistan—if they had trains.
For Prince, a large mercenary force inspired by the British East India Company would be Blackwater 2.0, a phenomenal business opportunity for someone with White House connections. (His sister is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.) But he’s also got inroads of his own. In January, he held secret meetings in the Seychelles, allegedly to establish a back channel between Trump and Vladimir Putin (a spokesman for Prince denied to the Post that the meeting had anything to with Trump). Or perhaps he just wants to come home. After the Iraq fiasco, he went into self-exile, helping Abu Dhabi raise a secret army in the desert and working for China in Africa.
Despite the ridiculousness of all this, the idea appears to be gaining traction in Washington. Bannon recently went to the Pentagon to push for it, and others in the private military industry are lobbying in support. Their interests are more likely profit than concern for Afghans. The fact that the idea has champions in the West Wing sends a message to the whole galaxy of private military contractors: Business may be booming once again! If America entertains the possibility of outsourcing one of its most intractable foreign policy boondoggles, it may well push the market to spit out huge numbers of these fighters. It is supply and demand, generating tens of thousands of soldiers of fortune.
Mercenaries also breed war and suffering. For-profit warriors proliferate armed conflict—as long as there is someone to pay, there will always be a war to start, expand or prolong. History shows us that they often maraud between contracts, preying on the innocent. In the Middle Ages, they would sometimes extort whole cities in racketeering schemes, as happened to Siena, Italy 37 times between 1342 and 1399. Others set up de facto kingdoms of their own, or just took one over, as the happened to Milan in the 1400s. Sometimes they were hired to commit atrocities, sparing their clients from this nasty work. In 1377, the Pope’s private army was ordered to annihilate the town of Cesena, massacring all its inhabitants.
But contractors are not intrinsically evil; in fact, they can be a force for good. They are a tool, like fire—they can burn down a building or power a steam engine. What good could they do? They can prevent mass atrocities, police warlords, hunt terrorist groups, augment peacekeeping missions, raise legitimate armies or enforce the rule of law—I know because I did these things. This is doable, but requires a small force under certain conditions and proper oversight. It is wholly different than the massive mercenary army Prince seems to envision to rule Afghanistan.
The privatization of war is already underway. Denial is not a strategy to manage this growing problem. Prince sees how it can be harnessed for U.S. interests and is pushing his proposal, as are others in the industry. But America is not ready for such a radical idea, and may never be.