President Trump’s announcement of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan on Monday brought about a wide variety of responses. Many hoped that the President’s “America First” mindset would lead him to withdraw U.S. forces from the nation’s longest war, while some others lamented the idea of yet another troop surge… but President Trump’s announcement was particularly disappointing for one man in particular: Erik Prince.
Over the past few months, Prince has been actively peddling his private contractor-wares to high-ranking officials in Trump’s cabinet and multiple news outlets. He penned an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal explaining his own strategy for Afghanistan – one that involves sending 5,500 contractors, sometimes referred to as mercenaries, to supplement Afghan security forces, rather than U.S. troops. Further, it hoped to establish a private air force in the nation, to serve as a supplement for Afghan air power in the absence of U.S. air support. Prince, undoubtedly, would oversee operations in the country, but his plan also called for the appointment of an American “viceroy,” which, aside from sounding a bit like a rank appointed to senior members of the Empire in Star Wars, would also have the authority to manage American interests via the contractor force.
I’ve been active there as a government vendor since early 2002, and I’ve seen this thing drag on endlessly,” Prince said in an interview on the conservative outlet Breitbart. “We’re now approaching a trillion dollars in spending that the U.S. Defense Department has consumed in Afghanistan. We have another trillion dollars in healthcare costs yet to be expended to all the wounded and damaged veterans that have gone there. And we’re losing.”
To be fair to Prince, the founder of the controversial private contracting firm Blackwater, the war in Afghanistan has turned into an extremely expensive quagmire, with many Americans growing frustrated with the prolonged expense, both in terms of money and human lives, the effort has amassed. Prince’s answer to the messy questions of how does one find victory in a war Netflix crafted a (somewhat) fictional movie decrying as unwinnable, came in the form of PowerPoint presentation.
Although the presentation itself hasn’t found its way onto the internet, images of a few pages have. On one page, posted by The Atlantic, Prince declared Afghanistan to be “effectively a failed state,” adding that American defeats in the region have emboldened the enemy. His new approach, dubbed “Strategic Economy of Force,” according to Prince, would apply pressure to all terrorist organizations active in the region, while eliminating terrorist “sanctuaries.” He also argues that it would prevent the collapse of the Kabul government, while minimizing risk to U.S. troops.
Most prominent in his goals, however, are the reduced “political risk” for the United States by employing private contractors in the fight rather than deploying its own military, and the cost savings, which Prince estimated to be a whopping 92 percent.
That all honestly sounds great. So why didn’t Trump, a candidate that ran on a platform that included pulling U.S. troops out of these sorts of conflicts, and a business man that values bottom-line savings, sign off on it? Well, if you ask Prince, it’s because the President is in a bubble full of advisors that only know how to think within their respective boxes. Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently fired chief strategist, was said to support Prince’s plan, but the Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster have all dismissed it. For those in Bannon’s corner, they argue it’s because he’s the outsider, free from the political pressures of the military industrial complex. For the more reasonable, that sounds a bit like the experts agree Prince’s plan doesn’t work, and a man who has earned a living through click-bait in recent years stands as one of the plan’s few supporters. Objectively, that’s not a glowing recommendation.
“I think it will make Erik Prince billions of dollars while he loses the war for us,” a congressional aide who has seen the plan said. Another said, “the adults hate it,” referring to the three generals in Trump’s cabinet. Mattis himself would only say that Prince’s plan was among the strategies on the table for discussion, and that although his analysis of Afghanistan was sound, the strategy thereafter was flawed.
The plan Prince laid out called for a few specific changes: notably the consolidating of authority under a viceroy, raising a private military that would remain in the country for a long duration, and working to bolster legitimate businesses within the country. Of course, the real benefits are supposed to be a way for U.S. forces to get out of Afghanistan, while continuing the fight with political insulation at a lower cost – but let’s break down those three most important points to see how well they hold water.
U.S. forces would indeed be able to pull out of Afghanistan, but America’s footprint would likely have to remain in an administrative function. Despite fielding contractors from “every country with a good rugby team,” as Prince puts it, the American appointed viceroy would ultimately be representing the United States as a figurehead for this private military. That point transitions into the next tenant of Prince’s plan: political insulation. With a U.S. official serving as the head of this private military, political fallout for the actions of contractors would still ultimately fall on the American government, but instead of answering for the actions of its own troops, U.S. officials would find themselves answering for the actions of citizen-soldiers from other nations like Canada, Australia and so forth. If anything, the political fallout would remain, but the disciplinary structure of the military would not.
Finally, we have the cost savings – which is often Prince’s chief selling point. The thing is, many within the Pentagon and Trump’s team believe Prince’s figures to be difficult to deliver (at best) and downright exaggerated (at worst). To be fair – it would be extremely difficult to be sure exactly how much the continued war effort in Afghanistan would cost via private contractors, but everyone outside of Prince seems certain it would cost more than he claims.
The most egregious offense Prince’s plan commits however, comes in the first paragraph of his OpEd, when he says:
“The Pentagon has already consumed $828 billion on the war, and taxpayers will be liable for trillions more in veterans’ health-care costs for decades to come. More than 2,000 American soldiers have died there, with more than 20,000 wounded in action. For all that effort, Afghanistan is failing.”
It isn’t the cost of warfare that can be disputed, but rather the “savings” he insinuates he could provide by removing the costs of things like veteran healthcare, as well as the human cost of those we’ve lost in the war effort. This depiction of a ledger that includes debts of both cash and blood that Prince can wash away, ignores the fact that the fighting doesn’t stop when American uniforms leave Afghanistan. Contractors would get hurt, some would die, and chances are good, many of them would be American veterans.
That’s the real rub, instead of sending American troops to Afghanistan, Prince proposes sending what would likely be many American veterans, as well as those from other allied nations. These men would still fight and die, but without the troubled VA to provide any semblance of care on the other end of the privatized war. Our taxpayers could wash their hands of these “expenses,” but the men and women fighting the war couldn’t. Even if working for Prince came with some incredible healthcare, it seems unlikely it would also come with a lifetime of disability payments for the American veteran that lost his legs in service to Prince. It seems more likely that such a contractor would still rely on the VA… if available. If not? Well, I guess it isn’t the government’s problem?
President Trump’s decision not to go with Prince’s plan may mean yet another troop surge, and it could likely result in more American troops getting hurt, or killed in the fight – but then, that’s the way war goes. Ignoring the men and women who come back maimed, or don’t come back at all, because they don’t have a flag draped over their caskets is just a means to hide the cost of war from the American people, not reduce them – even if Prince is right about the potential for financial savings.
Afghanistan remains a quagmire of a war… but for now, it remains our quagmire.
Image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense