Opinion – The administration of President Trump, when not engaging in a 7th grade Twitter War with King Jong Un from North Korea, has invested long-term in Afghanistan. Right or wrong isn’t the topic here but the manner in which the United States decides to prosecute the war.
A couple of the President’s advisers, including his son-in-law, wanted the President to listen to Erik Prince, the former owner of Blackwater whose idea was to turn the war over to contractors. Prince’s plan was to keep a small force of American Special Operations and support troops (around 2,000) and a force of 6,000 contractors. He claims that this will allow the support of the Afghans and allow all of the conventional U.S. troops to go home.
Prince calls for the use of Special Operations veterans to live, train and operate alongside their Afghan counterparts at the company and battalion level, much like they are used now. He calls for supplemental Afghan air power, with Afghan markings to fly with Afghan pilots and only a contractor (safety officer) on board. All contractors would be subject to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, as American troops are now.
Prince’s idea is to combine all of the US efforts under an “American Viceroy” and base the private army directly under the Viceroy’s control. He previously used the example of Douglas MacArthur in Japan. He also characterized it along the lines of the East India Company, however, as being under Afghan command and control and following Afghan rules of engagement. One can’t fault Prince with his faith in his idea and in his contractors. After all, they’ve made him millions of dollars in both Iraq and Africa and this proposal, had it come to fruition would have made him even more. But would it work? Most of the President’s advisors wisely thought no.
The faction of the Trump White House behind this plan got Prince an audience with Secretary of Defense Mattis where he pitched his idea. Reports said, Mattis listened politely and then ended the meeting without asking any questions. That pretty much sums up how they felt about his plan.
The turning over the war or outsourcing to private contractors is fraught with several problems. The first is how can the US influence the conduct of the war when the Viceroy doesn’t answer to the Congress or the Pentagon but only to the President himself? And to a lesser degree, is the company beholden to the United States? What if problems arise (as they are bound to do), and a third-party government offers to “take over” the contract. As far-fetched as this sounds it could conceivably happen and then what?
Second, the Afghans have stated clearly that they do not want a “Viceroy” by this or any other name on their turf. And if they’re clearly not going to support this idea, then it would be ultimately doomed to failure.
Certain parts of his plan have merit, although they merely echo what US Special Operations forces have been trying to do there for several years. The deep embed of the local contractor/troops with the local military/security forces and the ability to create long-term expertise in the operational area. These are things that our SOF try to do but are limited by tour lengths in-country.
Another problem is that by basing the contractors with local security forces and using local private language and support patrons will give the rise to local warlords, not decrease their existence. The private contractor actually degrades the integration between military and political goals, which is a must in a counterinsurgency. This was a problem that the East India Company ran into in India. And despite their private army fielded in India, the country was only pacified due to massive influxes of regular British military troops.
A further issue is over liability. Prince claims that the contractors will fall under the UCMJ. Of whose military? The US or Afghanistan? Contractors must be liable for their actions, no different than US troops are now. And the Afghans would have to agree to whatever policy is put into effect. And if Prince were to hire contractors from a myriad of countries, who is the authority that the company employees must answer to?
Prince’s Blackwater troops were involved in one of the worst diplomatic disasters for the US in Iraq when they killed 17 civilians and wounded about 20 more in Baghdad. Several of the contractors were tried and convicted of manslaughter. A fourth was convicted of murder. An appeals court threw out the sentences and rest assured, the Afghans are watching the developments of that closely.
And as a footnote to whom Prince plans to hire, he claimed that only ex-Special Operations veterans would be hired. However, none of the four contractors that were convicted as Blackwater operatives were Special Operations veterans. And most only served an initial tour of duty in the military. So, who is going to vet these contractors? The vetting would have to be done to find the right people and Prince’s prior job of doing that fell far short.
And by using MacArthur and the East India Company has its own questions. The history books I grew up with said the MacArthur was fired by President Truman for abusing those viceroy powers. And here in Boston, the East India Company isn’t fondly remembered. The company with its monopoly on tea being brought into Britain tried to gouge the colonists in America by putting a large tax on the tea being brought to the Colonies and deigned to sell a shipload of tea that had already begun to mildew and go bad to the people of Boston. The result was the Boston Tea Party, which lit a powder keg that began the American Revolution.
Thankfully the President’s other advisers have convinced him that Prince’s way wasn’t the way to go and in the long run, the cost, which would’ve been less under Prince’s plan would have been too steep for the US to absorb.
But something tells me that we still haven’t seen the last of this proposal. War is always an opportunity for some people to make large sums of money and this one has had people coming out of the woodwork. One security contractor, New Century Consulting racked up costs that included the luxury vehicles, $42,000 for automatic weapons and salaries of $420,000 to the significant others of the company CEO and CFO as executive assistants. Why did contractors in Afghanistan require Bentleys, Porsches, Alfa Romeos and an Aston Martin (perhaps 007?) to fulfill their contract?
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