Last week, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan, Erik Prince, founder of the controversial mercenary contractor firm Blackwater, said that Trump would soon have to rethink what he described as “a kind of Obama-lite policy.”
Now, however, it appears that it is Prince who is rethinking his policy proposal, or at least his presentation of it. Gone are any references to an Afghanistan “viceroy” or the British East India Company in his latest op-ed, published this week, quite questionably, in the New York Times. Yet the basic pitch is the same.
“The ‘new’ strategy that the president adopted last week would reportedly increase authorized troop levels from 8,400 to around 12,400,” Prince writes. The somewhat vague language Prince uses here (“reportedly” increase; “around” 12,400) reflects the vagueness of Trump’s speech, in which he not only declined to discuss numbers of troops but also seemed to leave the door open to some version of Prince’s mercenary option. “Fortunately,” as Prince puts it in his Times piece this week, “it is not too late to alter the course.”
Prince’s plan calls for thousands of mercenary contractors, similar to Prince’s Blackwater contractors who became notorious due to their conduct in Iraq, to be sent to Afghanistan.
“My proposal is for a sustainable footprint of 2,000 American Special Operations and support personnel, as well as a contractor force of less than 6,000 (far less than the 26,000 in country now),” Prince writes. “This team would provide a support structure for the Afghans, allowing the United States’ conventional forces to return home.”
While that may sound straightforward enough, it appears that Prince may also be spinning the numbers to support his argument. His reference to “authorized troop levels” of 8,400 didn’t take into account the thousands more American military personnel in Afghanistan whose controversial presence there had been reported more than a week earlier, for example. Similarly, Prince’s assertion that there is a 26,000 strong “contractor force” in Afghanistan today is dubious.
As evidence, Prince cites a Congressional Research Service report that lists 26,022 “total contractors” in Afghanistan as of the first quarter of fiscal year 2017. This is up from 25,197 the previous quarter. Crucially, however, the report qualifies this figure. “Of the 25,197 DOD contractor personnel, about 3% were armed private security contractors,” it notes.
The report includes a separate table that lists “total private security contractors” in Afghanistan, a category that apparently “includes most subcontractors and service contractors, armed and unarmed, hired by prime contractors under DOD contracts.” For the last quarter of fiscal 2016, the table lists 813 such contractors, a number which jumped to 1,722 for the first quarter of fiscal 2017 — a significant increase of more than double, but still far below the “contractor force” of 6,000 mercenaries that Prince envisions, all of whom would almost certainly be armed.
As recent headlines have made clear, getting straight answers from the military about its troop levels, or the numbers of private contractors it employs in Afghanistan, is not always easy. It may come as a shock to some that a person like Erik Prince would try to so brazenly capitalize on the public’s confusion over this issue to sell it on a bad plan that will make him rich(er) — but it shouldn’t.
“As a former military contractor, I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries,” writes former mercenary Sean McFate in an article for Politico this week that describes Prince’s plan as “unworkable.”
McFate adds that the world of for-profit warfare is “worse than people think” and that “Prince is an amateur and makes rookie mistakes, which is probably why the generals laughed at him.”
As an example of why Prince’s plan is “garbage,” McFate cites the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre in which Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians at a traffic circle in Baghdad. “For Iraqis, Blackwater’s reckless behavior and callous disregard for Iraqi lives seemed emblematic of America’s handling of the war as a whole, and helped to hasten our exit,” McFate writes. When it comes to his latest plan, he notes, Prince “has not shared any financial details with the public, a curious omission.”
President Trump’s plan for Afghanistan may seem vague and open-ended, offering little in the way of specifics and no clear goal except “to win,” without any real vision of what that would require or look like. But if Trump’s plan is bad in all these respects, Prince’s is worse.
“Prince smells an opportunity in Donald Trump,” writes McFate. “His sister is Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, giving him access to the White House. Prince is looking for a billion-dollar paycheck while wrapping himself in the American flag. No one should fall for his con.”