Donald Trump’s brain trust faces a thorny problem in Afghanistan, and true to form, is considering solutions with a built-in conflict of interest.
Today, the New York Times reports (paywall) that the White House solicited plans to replace US troops with mercenaries from Erik Prince, the founder of the scandal-tarnished mercenary company Blackwater, and Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire private equity investor who controls the defense contractor DynCorp and spends his free time playing soldier with special operators at a private training camp he constructed.
The proposals from the two men, who could make millions from an increased use of private contractors by the US, were solicited by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s top political adviser. Bannon encouraged Defense secretary James Mattis to include the idea of relying on private companies rather than soldiers in a review of Afghanistan policy. Mattis reportedly declined.
Bannon’s interest in bringing in the two moguls of mercenary warmaking is tied to the politics of the Afghanistan conflict, now in its 16th year.
The US public won’t back sending the kind of resources and troops it would take to defeat the Taliban once and for all, but American leaders have been reluctant to make the case for a political settlement with the Taliban, withdrawal, or anything other than total victory. President Barack Obama pulled the bulk of US troops from the conflict, but a small force of some 5,000 soldiers remains even as conditions there worsen.
Trump criticized Obama’s strategy, promising during the 2016 election campaign to get out of the Afghan conflict altogether. But the US security establishment worries about the country becoming more unstable or falling into the hands of Islamist political extremists because it is next door to Pakistan, a nuclear state with its own domestic troubles. Trump has handed the war over to the generals by giving Mattis authority to decide how many troops to send, which seems likely to lead to a surge.
Trump’s team, fearing the security consequences of withdrawing entirely from Afghanistan and the political consequences of trying to win there with massive amounts of volunteer troops, looked to Prince and Feinberg’s proposals as third option. While the US often uses private contractors to guard facilities or even train police forces, Prince, whose sister Elizabeth DeVos is Trump’s education secretary, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (paywall) earlier this year outlining his plan for East India Company-style private armies to replace US troops in training Afghan forces.
Prince’s reference to the East India company wasn’t the only thing that must have made eyes roll among veterans of counter-insurgency fights in Afghanistan and Iraq. The op-ed also called for putting all power into a single American viceroy a là General Douglas MacArthur in Japan—which worked well in a country that had surrendered, but might not be the answer in an ongoing political conflict. The Times article notes that Prince and Feinberg’s advice is known as the “Laos option,” after the episode in which US intelligence contractors trained Laotian soldiers to fight communists. That ultimately finished with Laos falling under communist control and becoming a by-word for US military atrocities.
During the Iraq war, Prince’s company, Blackwater, was involved in numerous troubling incidents. The most infamous was the Nisour Square massacre, when contractors opened fire on a crowd of civilians in Baghdad, killing 17; it led to court cases that put four of the contractors in prison. In recent years, Prince has worked as a mercenary broker for the United Arab Emirates, and acted as a go-between for a Trump donor and an associate of Vladimir Putin in a January effort to set up a secret backchannel between the White House and the Kremlin.
Feinberg’s interest in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is through DynCorp, a company that provides logistical support to US forces abroad. It received $2.8 billion from State Department reconstruction efforts alone between 2002 and 2013, mostly to set up the Afghan National Police. Its record abroad has been spotty, however; it has been investigated for human trafficking and had to pay to settle charges of submitting false payment claims to the government. Any extension of the conflict in Afghanistan would be a windfall for the contractor, especially if it comes with an expanded role for private companies.