Plan to Privatize US War in Afghanistan Gets Icy Reception
August 14, 2017
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.
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.
Rahmatullah Nabil, Afghanistan's former spy chief, said the plan would result in more civilian anger that would only help Taliban recruitment.
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.
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.
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."