Small Wars Journal

Plan to Privatize U.S. War in Afghanistan Gets Icy Reception

Sat, 08/12/2017 - 8:59pm

Plan to Privatize U.S. War in Afghanistan Gets Icy Reception

William Gallo, Ayub Khawreen and Hasib Danish Alikozai - VOA News

Blackwater founder Erik Prince's controversial proposal to privatize a large portion of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is being met with growing opposition in Kabul and Washington.

President Donald Trump is reportedly considering the proposal as part of his monthslong review of the war in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is locked in a stalemate with the Taliban after 16 years of fighting.

Prince touts the plan as a cost-effective way to turn the war around. Under the proposal, about 5,000 contractors would replace U.S. troops currently advising Afghan forces. They'd be backed by a 90-plane private air force. The contractors would operate under Afghan control, Prince said.

"This is very much under the authority of the central government and the control of the chief of staff of the Afghan armed forces. This is not a local militia that's going to be raised," Prince said in an interview with VOA's Afghan service.


But a growing number of prominent Afghans fear that Prince's for-profit, private military would be unaccountable and say the move risks a repeat of the atrocities carried out by Blackwater guards in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2000s.

Afghanistan's government has not yet officially responded to the proposal. But a senior Afghan defense official told VOA, "The plan has legal problems and raises questions about our mutual security agreements with the U.S."

The Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the proposal, specifically cited the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, which went into effect in 2012, and the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which the U.S. and Afghanistan signed in 2014 during the first few months of President Ashraf Ghani's tenure as leader of Afghanistan.

His predecessor, President Hamid Karzai, had refused to sign the agreement, even after a traditional Loya Jirga (grand council) approved it.

Any amendment to the BSA in the face of the proposed plan to privatize the war could potentially call for another Loya Jirga, and that could further complicate an already complex situation in the country.


There are about 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Most are in noncombat roles, aimed at training and advising Afghan forces, since U.S.-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in 2014.

But since taking over security control of the country, the Afghan military has been losing ground to the Taliban. The Kabul government now controls just over half of the country. Top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, now concede the U.S. is not winning the war.

The war is also expensive. The U.S. is expected to spend about $45 billion on Afghanistan this year alone.

"The United States, right now, is spending more than the entire U.K. defense budget, just in Afghanistan. And the U.S. can't continue that forever," said Prince, who claims to be able to do the job for less than $10 billion a year.

Prince's Plan

Under Prince's proposal, the U.S. war would be coordinated by a "viceroy," who would consolidate what Prince calls Washington's "very chaotic and disorganized" approach to the country.

The 5,000 contractors would attach to Afghan military units and would "live with, train with and fight alongside them, when necessary," Prince said. They would report to Afghanistan's government, he added.

"These would be contracted professionals attached to the Afghan army. So even by United Nations definitions, those are not mercenaries. They would be attached to and serving with the Afghan forces," he said.

Prince also proposes a "big increase" in air support. The 90 planes in his private air force "would be badged as Afghan aircraft, with Afghan call signs, with an Afghan on board, and Afghans making the weapons release decisions," he said.

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, said he also wants to keep about 2,000 U.S. special forces in the country to "maintain a unilateral ability to go after terrorist targets."


But Prince's plan faces an uphill battle.

Trump has said he is open to new ideas in Afghanistan. But if he decides to embrace Prince's plan, he may have to override top U.S. military leaders, who are said to dislike the proposal.

A wide range of Afghans are also skeptical. Former Afghan President Karzai said via Twitter he "vehemently" opposed the plan, calling it a "blatant violation" of Afghanistan's national sovereignty.

Hameem Talwar, a 28-year-old from the northeast province of Kunar, told VOA he feared the move would result in more civilian casualties.

"People will rise up against them, and the war will become longer and will provide an excuse for the Americans to stay even longer," Talwar said.

Thomas Johnson, who specializes in Afghanistan and national security issues at the Naval Postgraduate School, said, "This has to be one of the most insane, dangerous proposals I have ever heard.

"This would basically be a foreign mercenary force that couldn't speak the languages, would wear ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] uniforms, and would basically employ deadly military force outside the standard Law of Armed Conflict controls," Johnson said.

"It would represent one of our greatest abominations of military and international responsibilities in our history," he added.

Legal Risks

Handing so many war responsibilities to private contractors could also make the U.S. more vulnerable to lawsuits, said Laura Dickinson, a law professor at George Washington University who studies the privatization of foreign affairs.

"If things go wrong, the United States could be on the hook legally for their actions," Dickinson said. "And we know from past experiences that without adequate planning, when you have a massive influx of contractors, things do go wrong."

Dickinson pointed to a 2007 incident in which four Blackwater guards were accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. A similar incident in 2010 in Kabul resulted in the deaths of two Afghan civilians.

Though Prince sold Blackwater in 2010 and now owns a Hong Kong-based company that would carry out the Afghanistan proposal, incidents like that could complicate his proposal.

Decision Soon

Trump has indicated he is nearing a decision on Afghanistan. In addition to Prince's proposals, his options include boosting the U.S. troop presence there, or removing them entirely.

"We're getting very close," Trump said Thursday. "It's a very big decision for me. I took over a mess, and we're going to make it a lot less messy."



Let us look at this issue (the potential use of mercenaries in Afghanistan) from the perspective of this review of President Trump's speech last night -- and, specifically, from the perspective of our President's therein declared new definition of what "winning" means for the United States:


Winning ... but not nation-building.

When Obama talked about the war in Afghanistan, he focused on bringing US troops home. Trump made clear he wants victory there.

"Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win," Trump said. "From now on, victory will have a clear definition, attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge."

But the key thing Trump made clear to move away from — a nod to the isolationist wing of his supporters who backed a US pullout from Afghanistan — was nation-building.

"We want them to succeed, but we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far-away lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image," Trump said. "Those days are now over."

Trump said bluntly that the US was "not nation-building again."

To finish the point, he added: "We are killing terrorists."


Thus, in sum:

a. Might we say that "winning" now means doing the "whack-a-mole" thing, to wit: "killing terrorists?" And, based on President Trump's such redefinition of "winning," he (President Trump) believes:

b. That the U.S. military is still the best tool to use (as opposed to the use of mercenaries) to achieve this objective?

(Note: In consideration of the above, can we say that the previous definition of "winning" was understood more along "strategic" nation-building -- rather than "tactical" whack-a-mole -- lines? And, thus, along lines which suggested that it was short-sighted, illogical, irrational, rather stupid, etc., to define "winning" in this more-simple/simplistic "whack-a-mole" manner? This, because "whack-a-mole" did nothing to [a] get at the "root cause" of terrorism and, thus, did nothing to [b] prevent terrorism -- today and/or in the future? Thus, it has been said that "whack-a-mole" [a] does nothing to achieve the "better peace" requirements of strategy and, in stark contrast, [b] may actually do more to sustain and/or increase terrorist activity; such as we appear to be witnessing in the world today?)

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:


a. "We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far-away lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image." And

b. We will, also, no longer use our State Department assets to achieve this such strategic requirement/this such "better peace." (The current decision to eviscerate the U.S. State Department to be understood in this manner?)

Then, will we, effectively by this decision,

a. Leave the field open to those state and non-state entities (Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.) who WILL use these -- and other -- such instruments of power and persuasion; this, to:

b. Do "nation-building" more along their -- often very different from our -- political, economic, social and value lines?

(Herein, these such other state and non-state entities, by their such more- logical and pro-active activity, effectively [a] reaping for themselves the clear political, economic, social and value benefits of such strategic "nation-building?" While, at the same time, effectively [b] denying such benefits to a -- no longer in the game/a "gone home" -- U.S./the West?)

In consideration of the above, does the U.S.'s such clear abandonment of the world -- and the U.S.'s such clear abandonment of the political, economic, social and value (i.e., our "human domain?") national security requirements and responsibilities relating to the same -- do these abandonments make any sense?

This, whether we use mercenaries (to "win"/to "kill terrorists") or not?