Erik Prince made a windfall convincing the State Department, military and CIA to hire his mercenary firm, Blackwater. But this time, his plan to win Afghanistan through a new infusion of guns-for-hire has few customers.
At the Pentagon, according to a knowledgeable former senior official, opposition to Prince’s proposal—details of which were first reported by USA Today—for a “viceroy” to run Afghanistan through a paid army runs high.
“The Pentagon is not interested in privatizing the war in Afghanistan,” the former official told The Daily Beast.
Several current and former Trump administration officials said that despite Prince’s recent reemergence on cable news—the venue of choice when attempting to persuade President Donald Trump—Prince has no significant internal support. That is, with one big exception: Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and an avowed bureaucratic enemy of the national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Bannon is very friendly with Prince, having hosted the former Blackwater honcho on his onetime Breitbart radio show to discuss how to battle “Islamic fascism.” The two maintain a mutual respect and admiration. By contrast, Bannon and McMaster’s antagonism has sometimes escalated to actual yelling, as one White House adviser previously told The Daily Beast, in “palpably uncomfortable” meetings.
Other senior staffers, such as Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who previously advocated preparing contractor options for the president, hasn’t warmed to these ideas. Kushner is “not gung-ho at all” about them in the way Bannon is, one senior Trump administration official said.
The military prefers a troop increase of several thousand U.S. troops for what is essentially a status-quo mission: continuing to train Afghan forces and using special operators to hunt Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters. The only significant departure from Barack Obama’s approach is to make the U.S. presence indefinite, since the military, backed by McMaster, blames drawdown timetables for blunting any tactical achievements made by Obama’s troop surge.
Prince, now the owner of a new mercenary firm called Frontier Services Group, have an alternative. A U.S. viceroy, whom Prince frames as reminiscent of Trump’s favorite general Douglas MacArthur, would consolidate decisionmaking and be backed by a hired army that trains Afghan forces. Prince claims his plan would cost $10 billion annually without explaining his math. On multiple occasions, he has cited as a model the notorious East India Company that ravaged, plundered and slaughtered across the subcontinent. (“Not that I’m advocating a colonization of Afghanistan,” he noted to MSNBC.)
At the Pentagon, during the past six months of internal debate, Prince’s offering has never been taken seriously, according to the ex-defense official. A considerable amount of gridlock has occurred from Trump’s insistence on sharply distinguishing a new strategy from anything Obama pursued in Afghanistan, despite military advice that features more continuity than change. But the ex-official dismissed Prince’s approach as something geared more for media attention than credible policymaking.
McMaster’s “Absurd, Throw-Whatever-at-the-Wall” Strategy
Several current and former Trump administration officials also said that McMaster—whom Prince derided on Monday as a “three-star conventional Army general”—handled the Afghanistan policy process in a way that gave Prince and Bannon an opening.
As the Afghanistan strategy review wore on, McMaster wanted to present Trump with a consensus proposal. That was a departure from the way George W. Bush and Obama each handled prospective troop increases. In both the 2006 Iraq surge discussions and the 2009 Afghanistan surge discussions, senior generals presented a menu of options—small, medium and large troop surges—for the president to order off of.
McMaster, however, opted to get the various national-security departments to back a single strategy to present to Trump. But the agencies couldn’t arrive at a consensus. As McMaster’s process ground on, according to current and former administration officials, the ensuing stalemate allowed Bannon to propose giving Prince an opportunity to pitch his own plan—for an Afghan “viceroy” who would impose his writ through a private army of the sort Prince provides.
McMaster’s approach left open a “vacuum to be filled with absurd, throw-whatever-at-the-wall stuff like this,” one senior White House official told The Daily Beast, describing why Bannon was able to start pitching Prince’s idea to Trump’s top national-security brass. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss internal deliberations and tensions.
According to several sources in and out of the administration who are close to Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon is sympathetic to Prince’s proposals in part because he does not trust foreign groups the United States is supporting—particularly in conflicts in Muslim-majority countries—and wants the president to do everything possible to reduce the American military presence in what he considers failed adventurism in Afghanistan.
Bannon, according to those who’ve known him for years, sees a mercenary force as an attractive alternative to the U.S. military working with “untrustworthy” allies abroad and putting more troops into theaters of war.
Prince generally agrees with Trump’s chief strategist about ratcheting down the level of conventional forces—and often is quick to propose extreme measures to try to crush enemies abroad. Last year, Prince appeared on Bannon’s Breitbart radio program where he said he would “not leave [the fight against ISIS] to the DoD to sort it out” and insisted that it “should be the intelligence community” to take the lead. One of the ways in which Prince wanted the U.S. intelligence community to take the reins was to revive for the modern era the Phoenix Program, a Vietnam War-era project spearheaded by the CIA and special ops that critics have documented as fueled by torture and death-squad tactics.
Prince lauded the program as ruthless and extremely “effective,” despite the outcome of the war in Vietnam.
Observers of the rise in private military companies over the past generation consider Prince’s plan to be a bottle of snake oil.
Mercenary companies do not scale up well while retaining quality, according to Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. Prince is “portraying this like all these forces are going to be ex-U.S. soldiers, and they’re not,” McFate said. “They’re going to come from the Philippines or Ghana or El Salvador, where labor is cheap. They’re not a substantive replacement for U.S. troops training [foreign forces] on accountability or human rights. It’ll increase the chances of a Nisour Square tenfold or more with this so-called mercenary army.”
Blackwater in Afghanistan: Stolen Guns, Slain Civilians
The last time a Prince company—Blackwater—operated in Afghanistan, it had a similar mandate as Prince’s latest proposal. And it did not go smoothly.
In 2008, Blackwater won a $20 million subcontract from Raytheon to train Afghan security forces. The company, still reeling from its 2007 Nisour Square shooting that killed 17 Iraqi citizens, created a shell firm, called Paravant, to hide its involvement.
Paravant employees, according to a 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee report, essentially stole hundreds of weapons intended for the Afghan police. At a storage depot the U.S. maintained, Bunker 22, Paravant’s mercenaries signed out 500 AK-47s for which they were not authorized to carry. By September 2008, mere months after Paravant won the contract, about 200 Bunker 22 Kalashnikovs were signed over to a Blackwater employee who gave his name as South Park’s Eric Cartman.
Disaster struck the following May. Two off-duty Blackwater guards were part of a U.S. convoy in Kabul that got into a traffic accident. The guards shot and killed an Afghan civilian in a car that passed by the scene and grievously wounding a passenger. Another bystander, out walking his dog, was killed as well. Richard Formica, then the U.S. general in charge of training Afghan troops, found that the guards had “violated alcohol consumption policies, were not authorized to possess weapons, violated use of force rules, and violated movement control policies.” In 2011, a federal jury in Virginia convicted both guards of involuntary manslaughter.
“The opportunities for fraud, waste and abuse are high and there are a lot of hidden costs with contracting, and a lot of contingency costs,” said McFate, who on Tuesday published a mercenary-themed novel, Deep Black.
“There’s a good likelihood that the viceroy will lose control of the mercenary army—at which point you’ll have to send the 82nd Airborne back in to rescue it. This ‘blue-sky plan’ is a salesman’s smokescreen… A cheap contractor company that fixes your home ultimately costs you double.”