The White House is actively considering a plan to turn a big chunk of the war in Afghanistan over to private contractors.
That’s according to Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater security firm, who is pushing the plan. He made the media rounds Tuesday to build support for the effort, which is unprecedented: private contractors have never been solely responsible for fighting a war on behalf of the United States.
“At what point do you say a conventional military approach in Afghanistan is not working,” said Prince, a former Navy SEAL, told USA Today. “Maybe we say that at 16 years.”
The possibility of privatizing the war comes as President Donald Trump has become increasingly frustrated with the stalemate in Afghanistan where the United States has been fighting for 16 years, the longest war in American history. Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have signaled they are open to using private forces.
Prince, now executive director of Frontier Services Group, would send 5,500 private contractors, primarily former Special Operations troops, to advise the Afghan army. Unlike American troops on the ground there now, these forces would embed with Afghan combat battalions, putting them closer to the frontline. He also wants to create a 90-plane private air force that would strike Taliban insurgents.
Right now, the United States has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan to train and advise local forces. They don’t have a direct combat role, but that hasn’t stopped them from being attacked; according to icasualties.org, 10 Americans have died in Afghanistan this year.
If Trump decides to privatize the war, it will mark a major change in strategy. It also brings up a host of issues. Here are five things you need to know about the possibility of a private army fighting on behalf of the United States.
It would be cheaper. Prince claims privatization will cost less than $10 billion a year, significantly less than the more than $40 billion the Pentagon has budgeted for this year. A 2016 Brown University study says wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $5 trillion dollars and counting. And, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has found repeatedly, much of that has been lost to waste, fraud and abuse.
“Fraud, waste, and abuse. And most of it has been waste — poor designing, poor implementation of programs. There is quite a bit of fraud, but the majority of it has really been waste,” SIGAR chief John Sopko said in a recent interview.
Also, the idea that Afghanistan would pay for the army is an illusion. Without U.S. backing, the Afghan government would be bankrupt. So, the government in Kabul would be using American funds to pay for the new army.
The use of private contractors in war zones is not unprecedented. While a private army has never fought solely on behalf of the United States, there are plenty of them in active war zones. According to the Pentagon, there were 2,028 contractors in Iraq last year, up from just 250 one year earlier. Another 5,800 are employed by other agencies, like the State Department.
It raises a host of ethical concerns. Blackwater contractors have a long record of questionable behavior. They have been named in several legal cases and accused of human rights abuses. Last week, an appeals court overturned the murder conviction of a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard sentenced to life in prison in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.
It seems like a plan Trump would embrace, but it might not be legal. Trump has long-talked of draining the swamp in Washington and his love of the private sector. But sending a private army to fight on behalf of the United States in a foreign country is easier said than done. Under the terms of the security agreement signed between Afghanistan and the U.S. in 2014, “Afghanistan maintains the right to exercise jurisdiction over United States contractors and United States contractor employees.” So, the government in Kabul could nix the plan before it gets underway. It could also refuse to give contractors immunity.
It’s no guarantee of victory. “Looking at civil wars in Africa, only when there is competition among companies do [private armies] working for government and rebels have a positive effect on civil war termination. This suggests that we may not want the unified effort Prince envisions,” Deborah Avant, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, wrote in a recent commentary.
Simply privatizing a war does not mean it’s going to be won.