Erik Prince’s Push to Privatize the Afghanistan War

Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince is now lobbying to deploy mercenaries instead of the US military in order to bring the 17-year war in Afghanistan to an end. We discuss the proposal with Antony Loewenstein, author of “Disaster Capitalism”

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

It has been almost exactly one year since President Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, under which U.S. troop levels were eventually increased from eleven thousand to sixteen thousand troops. However, as an article published on Thursday in the magazine Foreign Policy pointed out, One Year on, Little to Show for Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy. According to the U.S. military, the Afghan government controls only sixty five percent of the country’s territory, with the rest under either Taliban or under contested control. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden, twenty thousand people were killed in Afghanistan this year alone, making 2018 one of the deadliest years on record for the seventeen year old war.

One person who is trying to push the Trump administration to adopt a new strategy is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the mercenary, or private security, firm. Prince is now head of a new company called Frontier Services Group. He also happens to be the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. Prince is advocating a return to the use of private contractors, or mercenaries, to replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Here’s what he had to say recently about why this would be a good idea.

ERIK PRINCE: It’s not a private army, it is a very clear delineation of who is in charge, okay, the Afghan government working for a U.S. government official, funded by the United States at a fraction of a fraction of the cost of what we are spending now.

ANDREA MITCHELL: What would it cost?

ERIK PRINCE: All up, this is about a three and a half billion dollar package saving more than fifty two billion. If we leave decisions on warfare solely to the Pentagon, we will be at war forever. We’ll be here 17 years, you’ll long since be retired, and we’ll still be fighting in Afghanistan. Then we’ll have our grandchildren going to Afghanistan. Enough is enough.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to analyze the implications of Erik Prince’s proposal is Antony Loewenstein. Antony is an independent journalist and author of the book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Also, he is the writer and coproducer of the film, Disaster Capitalism. Thanks for joining us today, Antony.

ANTONY LOWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So, Erik Prince, as we saw in the clip just now, argues that his proposal to replace U.S. troops with mercenaries is not a privatization of the war effort because the soldiers are all under U.S. and Afghan control. What do you make of that argument?

ANTONY LOWENSTEIN: It’s a nonsense argument. I mean, let’s just put this into perspective. When the U.S. invaded in 2001, since then, the war has in partly been privatized. The U.S., under the Bush administration and Obama and now Trump, have had thousands and thousands of private contractors, some mercenaries, some private security, some people who just wash clothes and provide food.

So, the war to some extent has been privatized, to an extent. But what Erik Prince is advocating for here, and I should say he’s been advocating this for a while, when Trump became president, well took power in early 2017, he was pretty quick out of the block saying that the only way that the Afghan war could be saved, or I guess your implication that the U.S. could win the war, was that the vast bulk of U.S. troops should leave and he should provide U.S. trained, I presume, mercenaries to somehow fighting in the war.

When he’s more honest about this- he’s written about this in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, what he actually means is kind of a situation which is a quasi colonial environment when there’s a viceroy, that’s his word, we should appoint a viceroy to run the country based in Kabul, presumably, the capital. And this would somehow convince the Taliban or other forces to lay down their arms or negotiate, which is a nonsense. And it’s sort of a sad reality that Prince is still pushing this argument a year and a half into the Trump administration.

GREG WILPERT: So, one of Prince’s main arguments in favor of replacing the U.S. military with mercenaries is that it would be cheaper and more effective, militarily speaking. Certainly, reducing the number of soldiers by two thirds, from sixteen thousand to five thousand, which is, as I understand, his proposal would probably be cheaper. But what effect would such a move have on the country and on the conflict?

ANTONY LOWENSTEIN: Well, the best people to answer that would be Afghans. And I have quite a few Afghan friends who are based in Kabul and elsewhere and I’ve spoken to them about Prince’s plans, both in the last few weeks since he’s renewed his push to privatize the war, in the last year and a half. They are petrified of the idea of this happening. Now, let me be clear. The war is a complete disaster now, putting aside Price’s plan, its violnce, people fear dying walking to work. It is an absolutely appalling situation and there’s no doubt that the U.S. policy for, loosely, seventeen years, has been a complete disaster for a range of reasons.

One of the things that Prince talks about with a weird sense of honesty that the U.S. has been pushing a Soviet-style plan, the belief somehow that you can win hearts and minds was the initial plan after 2001. That was then abandoned in the last six to twelve months. The New York Times reported this a few months ago, that the U.S. policy really, these days, is more to focus on large cities to try to hold that territory. The truth is that that’s not actually working, because just in the last couple of weeks Afghan forces lost control of Ghazni, which is a city very close to Kabul, the capital.

The situation is- I know you mentioned in the beginning of our interview that the Afghan government controls sixty percent of the country. That’s a contested figure, I’d say, there’s many people who argue on the ground that in fact the Taliban or associated groups control, have influence, over far more territory. The problem with Prince’s plan, if nothing else, is that when much of the war in the last seventeen years has been privatized, there has been huge elements of private security moving around the country, Afghan and foreign. I’ve seen them. I spent time with them. I’ve been to Afghanistan twice in the last six years.

And the truth is, not all, but the majority of these private contractors often are unaccountable, often incredibly violent, killing a hell of a lot of civilians and not making people more secure. So, essentially, what Prince is arguing is that somehow that overwhelming force that apparently his mercenary army can provide, will somehow convince or force the Taliban to the table to negotiate. At the moment what’s interesting is alongside Prince’s idea is the Trump administration in fact is supposedly quite seriously pushing for some kind of peace negotiations. Very hard to know how viable that is and obviously, being Trump, we’re very skeptical, rightly so.

But there have been reports, legitimate reports, in the last six months that the U.S. administration, with the Afghan government, is pushing for some kind of negotiation with the Taliban, both in Russia soon and also in Qatar. So, the idea of Prince coming in with his plan, which I might add is being knocked back by the Trump administration, it’s being knocked back by Trump himself and also many people at the Pentagon for good reasons. Not that, of course, the American government plan is working either, I might add. But Prince’s plan certainly would not.

GREG WILPERT: Well, touching on that issue about the possibility of this coming through, I mean, it’s not a formal, hasn’t even been really accepted. And it seems like most of the military, as you said, and the Pentagon have rejected the idea. But, National Security Advisor John Bolton seemed to be kind of open and it seems like Prince is placing his bets on Bolton that this will go through. How do you see the current consolidation of forces in this regard? That is, how likely do you see Prince’s proposal of being implemented sometime in the near future?

ANTONY LOWENSTEIN: That’s a good question. And the short answer is we don’t know. But I’ll be honest, we don’t know. I think it’s not that likely. I know there’s been reports recently of John Bolton being maybe open to this, but those comments weren’t coming from Bolton himself, they were coming forom Erik Prince, which may be sort of a wish fulfillment on his part. Look, Bolton obviously likes, to in his view, do radical things. I mean, that’s obviously a viewpoint that would I think escalate the war in Afghanistan rather than solve it.

The argument that says somehow that Trump would be attracted to this plan because it will save money, that’s possible and he’s talked a lot during the 2016 election of how wasteful the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, which was arguably true. But the truth is that the Pentagon is opposed to it, much of the military is opposed to it, although there were a lot of people in the military who ended up working for Blackwater and now Erik Prince aligned companies in the last ten, fifteen years is true.

But there’s also a lot of skepticism and fear that the idea of introducing a private military army with a “viceroy” running the war from Kabul is- has any possibility of working. And also, the question is, what is the outcome here? What is the ideal goal? Is the goal to supposedly win the war? Seventeen years, and at times over one hundred and fifty thousand foreign troops who were in Afghanistan, could not win this war, whatever winning looks like, beating the Taliban, having an indefinite occupation, whatever that looks like. The idea that a handful of thousands of troops or military forces or private contractors or whatever Prince has in mind will solve this problem or win the war, the war is lost. That’s the truth.

And the sad reality for Afghans is that they are suffering that seventeen years on. There needs to be a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government, the Taliban, associated forces and of course the U.S. and foreign forces. And I might add, Pakistan, which is a key player in it who often don’t get talked about. Introducing Prince’s plan, I think at the moment within the Trump administration, the majority of forces are opposed to it. But Trump being Trump, we can never rule out it may be happening. And if that is the case, it needs to be deeply opposed for the best reasons possible.

GREG WILPERT: What you’re saying actually kind of reminds me of the saying that “Afghanistan is the burial ground of empires.” But we’ll leave it there for now. I was speaking to Antony Loewenstein, author of the book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrope. Thanks again, Antony, for having joined us today.

ANTONY LOWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Greg

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.