President Donald Trump gave a much-anticipated speech Monday “to lay out our path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia.” But while many predicted a definite announcement of a troop increase in the long-running Afghanistan War, Trump was instead vague, seemingly leaving the door open to a privatized, mercenary contractor option that has been floated.
“I’ve said it many times, how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military operations,” Trump said. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Despite Trump’s reticence regarding troop numbers, it’s widely been reported that his plan calls for about 4,000 more beyond the 8,500 U.S. soldiers presently serving in Afghanistan. Aside from doubling down on America’s commitment to “killing terrorists” in Afghanistan, Trump also mentioned a few other countries in the broader region.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” he said. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
Yet one clue to what we can perhaps expect in terms of changes to U.S. policy in Afghanistan may be gleaned not from what Trump did say, but from what he didn’t. Over the past few weeks and months, rumors have circulated that Erik Prince, brother of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy Devos and founder of the notorious mercenary contracting firm formerly known as Blackwater, has had in mind a plan for effectively privatizing the Afghanistan conflict. More details of that plan have gradually been taking shape.
Prince’s plan, apparently based on the colonial British East India Company model, calls for a “viceroy” to oversee U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Thousands of Western “mentor” contractors would embed with Afghan National Security Forces. These contract personnel would come not only from the United States, but potentially other English-speaking countries (“anybody with a good rugby team,” as Prince reportedly joked).
To be fair, it is unclear where Prince’s proposal is going from here. It has been described as “terrible,” having gotten an “icy reception” in Washington and at the Pentagon, not to mention in Afghanistan. One of the highest-level reported potential backers of the plan, Steve Bannon, was fired from his position as White House chief strategist last week, and one newspaper went as far as reporting that “the White House ruled it out,” although Trump himself did not directly address the plan at all Monday.
Prince, for his part, told Breitbart News that he expected Trump “to roll over and accept the same failed DOD paradigm of the last 16 years,” shortly before Trump’s scheduled speech. Following the speech, the L.A. Times editorial board was quick to label Trump’s plan “more of the same.”
“Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace,” Trump said Monday. “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society.” Yet for all his carefully chosen words, Trump’s speech was fairly thin on specifics of how war-torn and American-occupied Afghanistan might ever achieve such “everlasting peace.”
Trump apparently believes that “we have to be tough,” and whatever else his Afghanistan speech may have lacked, it did convey that impression. But even though he’s now “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” his plan was noticeably lacking in, well, detail. Perhaps, sensing the hopelessness of the quagmire of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Trump is taking his standard of approach of delegating responsibility to those he trusts based on their like-mindedness to himself.
“I think it will make Erik Prince billions of dollars while he loses the war for us,” a congressional aide familiar with Prince’s plan was recently quoted as saying in the Atlantic.
For now, we can rest assured that thousands more U.S. troops will be shipping off to Afghanistan to fight in a war that Trump once described as a “total disaster.” It remains to be seen whether, further down the line, the president will be able to resist the urge to make a deal with such a kindred spirit as Prince — indeed, one who shares his core philosophy that when all else fails, a lost cause can at least still be milked for a profit, and then made into someone else’s problem.