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A Test for Privatization in Afghanistan
Erik Prince, the former CEO of Blackwater has been pushing the privatization of the Afghan war as an alternative to the present strategy of gradually completing the Afghanization of the war. This is obviously a very controversial proposal, but it is one that at least merits some consideration. There is one remote area of Afghanistan that might well serve as a laboratory for privatization - the provision of construction security for the Ring Road in the remote northwestern region. Completing of the road was the most wicked problem I faced in my time in country, and the situation has not improved since I left in 2012.
Completion of the Ring Road is vital if the Kabul government is ever to be able to claim control over the entire nation. At present, vast stretches are uncompleted and it is impossible to get from the main western city, Herat, to Mazar el Sharif – the nation’s northern most metropolis- by road. The primary reason for the lack of progress is drugs. Without a highway system, it is near-impossible for Afghan law enforcement to assert control. Most drug lords call themselves Taliban to give them some legitimacy, but the Taliban’s Haqqani network is also hard at work running poppy through the area. These groups will resist road completion at all cost.
It is impossible for the Afghan Security Forces to continuously project combat power into the region to protect road building. The secret is to convince district and village leaders along the construction route to contribute local security to the workers. In 2012, my district governor worked hard with a Turkish construction consortium to convince local leaders to provide the requisite security. For his trouble, he was killed in an ambush during one of these field trips.
Providing Ring Road construction security would be a scalable test for some form of privatization. The contractor(s) would have two major logistics challenges. The first would be to operate several airfields on which to stage supplies and helicopters to resupply a series of forward operating bases from which the actual security for construction could accomplished.
The second challenge would be just as daunting. The contractor would have to develop a diplomatic understanding of the negotiating culture of the region sufficiently to convince local district and village leaders to provide security forces for their legs along the construction route. Money is an obvious inducement, but so is the lure of markets. With no roads to market for conventional crops, the local farmers are stuck with poppies. They are easy to grow, and the dealers provide the transportation via four- wheel drive vehicles and cross-country animal transport. However, the drug lords control the price which keeps the farmers well within the poverty zone. If the contractors can provide hope to break this cycle, they could well provide the incentive for local cooperation.
The harsh reality is that privatization might be the only realistic hope for Ring Road completion. As previously mentioned, the Afghan government cannot do it and the US and NATO are unlikely to take aboard any major future Afghan projects. The current Afghan government strategy is to hold the major urban areas while conducting see-saw battle for the Pashtun dominated provinces along the Pakistan border. However, the vast unfinished sections of the Ring Road create ungoverned spaces that provides a second front for the already overstretched Afghan security forces to be concerned with. Ring Road completion would close that second front. Completion of the road would be good strategy as well as good economics.
The Chinese are considering using private security on the major Belt Road project through Pakistan but are already finding drawbacks to their planning. We may learn some lessons through their experience.
President Trump has shown interest in Mr. Prince’s privatization initiative. Allowing contractors to take aboard the Ring Road project would be a reasonable test case. The Pentagon is skeptical- perhaps rightly so. However, if it works on the Ring Road, it is entirely possible that some hybrid of privatization and the present approach might be an effective way forward. If the privatization of the Ring Road project fails, Mr. Trump will at least know that the idea got a fair trial. If it succeeds, we will have taken a great step forward in the war. In Mr. Trump’s words; “what have we got to lose?”
Gary Anderson was a District Support Team Leader in one of the remote districts along the proposed Ring Road route.