Afghanistan Feature Part 1: Trump’s Afghanistan and its Danger to Democracy

Published September 17th, 2017 - 01:46 GMT
President Donald Trump and Erik Prince, courtesy of Al Bawaba
President Donald Trump and Erik Prince, courtesy of Al Bawaba

The Mercenary Prince

Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince hurried between meetings with D.C. officials trying to sell a plan to completely replace the U.S. forces there with private mercenaries. This came weeks before President Donald Trump announced that he was going to continue the Forever War in Afghanistan by sending 3,500 more U.S. troops to the embattled country.

Prince, with his strong political clout in Washington, sends a warning that soon his hands and mercenaries could secretly go into Afghanistan with Trump’s troops and even greatly outnumber them, blurring lines of accountability and representing a danger to democratic accountability for the war.

(AFP: Erik Prince)

Prince, a stocky man with the haircut and jaw of a man who clearly cherished his time as a U.S. Navy SEAL, has a long history of saying that mercenaries are better at solving security quagmires and humanitarian crises than public armies or U.N. peacekeeping forces. In 2007, he openly discussed the possibility of sending hundreds of private contractors to Darfur to stop the uptick in violence.

His most recent venture in managing mercenaries was during his self-imposed exile, when he brought a secret Colombian force to the U.A.E. thanks to a $529 million check from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. He left the U.S. after his rocky tenure with Blackwater came to an end, but now he’s back and has set his sights on Afghanistan.

His proposal was to replace the current U.S. forces totally with 5,500 private security personnel who would supposedly act as ‘advisors’ to help support the Afghan military, though Prince planned for his contractors to be active on the battlefield and pre-empted the legal obstacles to this by classifying his private army activities as intelligence operations. Prince also planned to create and man an entire private air force to give his ground troops aerial support.

The most controversial aspect of Prince’s plan was its roots in colonial governance, where an American ‘viceroy’ -- a term used to describe top representatives from the colonial governments to colonies, would administer all aspects of the U.S.’ occupation of Afghanistan.

(Sean McFate, expert on private miltiary contractos, Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, courtesy of Sean McFate)

And while Prince’s plans to colonize Afghanistan with a private army has not yet been adopted, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Sean McFate tells Al Bawaba that Trump may turn to Prince soon and adopt parts of his proposal:

“I can see the future in a month or two, when he gets frustrated with his decision to stay the course. Stay the Obama course, and then he turns around and Erik Prince [is there], saying ‘hey boss, I have a solution for you, take a sec and look at it.”

Prince is the brother of Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and reportedly tried to establish a secret backchannel to Russia on behalf of the Trump Administration. He also persuaded Steve Bannon, a former top Trump advisor who can still exert pressure on Trump through his Breitbart news publication, that sending mercenaries to Afghanistan was the U.S.’ best bet at a lasting solution.

(AFP: Erik Prince and Betsy DeVos, Editing Courtesy of Al Bawaba) 

In short, Prince is deeply entrenched in the Trump Administration’s many circles of power, and some form of his plan to bring a private, mercenary army to Afghanistan may happen after all.

This is especially likely as Trump campaigned against military intervention in Afghanistan, and could publicly distance himself from the war while still deploying thousands to the frontlines.

Democracy under Fire

(AFP: Private military contractors)

Private military firms carry with them a range of political and security concerns, and have been used to undercut clear lines of accountability while providing plausible deniability for any wrongdoing.

The most famous example of private military contractor (PMC) misconduct is the infamous Nissour Square Massacre of 2007 in Iraq, where Blackwater employees indiscriminately fired into a crowd of Iraqi civilians killing 17.

(AFP: Damaged and bloodied car in Nissour Square, Iraq, 2007)

But the danger of PMCs run deeper than singular, tangible instances of violence against civilians.

Private military firms are outsourcing more of their labor to Colombia and the Philippines among other countries, because they are cheaper than hiring for the U.S., Canada, or Europe.

“What other region of the world are you going to find reasonably westernized people with military experience, in some cases with combat experience, who will work for low wages, who speak a language that a lot of our own military personnel speak,” Adam Isacson, former director of programs at the Center for International Policy, told NACLA, in explaining why firms rely on Latin American labor.

Jeremy Scahill also reported that Blackwater extensively used and underpaid Colombian mercenaries in Iraq, paying some as low as $34 a day to operate in an active warzone.

Sean McFate told Al Bawaba that the use of PMCs allows the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to escalate wars and expand its military presence without having to report it to Congress or the American people.

“...Contractors give plausible deniability to the White House…. Congress passes a law and says ‘we don’t want mission creep in Afghanistan, we don’t want a surge. We want to limit it at 5,000 boots on the ground.’ And the White House says ‘okay, fine’ but then they need about 30,000 or 20,000 boots on the ground, and so they contract out the difference then don’t report that to Congress.”

Not only are they kept out of Congress’ reach, but it is nearly impossible to gain details about the contracts that are being signed. The contracts are kept in such secrecy that they often cannot be obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests (FOIA), which first require knowledge that there is a contract signed at all, in addition to knowing the title of the contract, which are often long lists of serial numbers.

U.S. citizens are then kept in the dark about the magnitude of their country’s military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Future Plausible Deniability

(AFP: Private military contractors)

On the ground, private military contractors (PMCs) can often have different and potentially dangerous tactics for counterinsurgency. McFate continues:  “If you get a special forces soldier from the Philippines, his idea of counterterrorism or counterinsurgency might be to shoot first, ask questions later…” which could end up leading to more civilian massacres. “And I think if we privatize the war in Afghanistan, we’re going to risk having another Nissour Square.”

And if indeed something like that were to happen again with Trump’s future approach to Afghanistan, the U.S. would maintain a line of plausible deniability, claiming that it wasn’t a U.S. soldier involved but a private hired Colombian or Ugandan contractor, despite the fact that they are in that country precisely to serve U.S. interests.

Not only do PMCs represent a danger to democracy and U.S. security interests, but they are being increasingly relied on above a publically raised army.

In 2007, there were 24,056 U.S. Army personnel compared to  29,473 private contractors in Afghanistan. Even though Former President Obama promised to wind down the U.S.’ involvement in Afghanistan, the numbers reflect a different reality.

By the end of 2016, there were 9,800 U.S. Army personnel and 25,197 private contractors in the country. Not only had the number of private contractors barely decreased, but they vastly outnumbered U.S. army soldiers, shifting the ratio from 1:1 to nearly 1:3--for every one soldier, there are three private contractors.

(Graphic Courtesy of Al Bawaba)

The argument that this new approach, though legally dubious and undemocratic, ultimately saves the taxpayer money is misguided. McFate explains to Al Bawaba that if a private contractor runs into trouble and needs help, they will call on the U.S. military, which then requires a sizable presence to effectively monitor the safety of the private army.

As Trump begins to roll out his plans for Afghanistan, the appeals of using a private military force will mount and so too will the dangers. But perhaps no aspect of private contractors is as ominous as the possibility that, as McFate puts it, “a world of mercenaries is a world of more war.”

By Ty Joplin


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