I Was A Mercenary. Trust Me: Erik Prince’s Plan (For Afghanistan) Is Garbage.
A few thousand military contractors can save Afghanistan? Give me a break.
- View Original
- August 31st, 2017
For the past year, Erik Prince has been peddling an idea that should alarm anyone who has followed his career: We should replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with mercenaries, preferably his.
For those who do not know Prince, he was a founder of Blackwater International, the private military contractor that became so toxic, he had to change the company’s name. Under his management, Blackwater committed perhaps the worst war crime of the Iraq war: A squad of armed contractors killed 17 civilians at the Nisour traffic circle in Baghdad. The incident sparked a political uproar in Iraq, vastly complicated the mission of the State Department diplomats the contractors were ostensibly there to protect, and set off multiple probes into Blackwater’s conduct. A FBI inquiry later found that 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified. For Americans, the “Nisour Incident” was a stain on their country’s moral character. For Iraqis, Blackwater’s reckless behavior and callous disregard for Iraqi lives seemed emblematic of America’s handling of the war as a whole, and helped to hasten our exit.
The generals laughed at Prince, and thankfully the president went with the non-mercenary option. But Prince refuses to disappear, excoriating the generals in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, and pushing again for mercenaries, suggesting “it is not too late to alter the course.”
As a former military contractor, I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries.
Prince’s argument has lots of problems. He insists contractors should not be stigmatized as “mercenaries,” even though he is proposing armed civilians in conflict zones—the classic definition of a mercenary. Instead, he says they are like the Flying Tigers, the popular name of the 1st American Volunteer Group that flew against the Japanese in 1941–1942. Here is where his analogy takes a nose dive: The Flying Tigers were not mercenaries. Rather, they were U.S. military pilots who took off their uniforms to fly as civilians, so that FDR did not have to declare war. Once war was declared, they flew as American fighter pilots once again. That’s hardly the same thing as contractors being paid, often exorbitantly, to fight a war on our behalf.
Prince also compares mercenaries to SpaceX, the private space company, probably offending SpaceX employees everywhere. Elon Musk does not kill people for money.
Crazy as all this sounds, it is a marked improvement over Prince’s earlier op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, where he advocates neocolonialism—a deeply un-American idea. He urged an American “viceroy” be installed to rule Afghanistan like a colonial overlord, backed by a mercenary army modeled on the old British East India Company. That’s like recommending plantations to assist African Americans in poverty. Anger was swift. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s ex-president, tweeted this: “I vehemently oppose the proposal to the U.S. govt to outsource its war in Afghanistan to private security firms.”
Besides being offensive, Prince’s proposal is unworkable. I know because I’ve done these things. For years, I worked as a private military contractor in Africa and elsewhere. I built armies for clients, dealt with warlords, conducted strategic reconnaissance, worked with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe and even helped prevent a genocide in Central Africa. I use fiction to reveal the secretive world of mercenaries. It’s worse than people think.
Mercenaries are back, a dangerous trend occurring in the shadows. Their very lack of accountability is their main selling point; they offer plausible deniability and brute force to those too weak or squeamish to wage war. Customers are buying too, with mercenary proliferation in Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Clients include countries, extractive industry and even terrorists. This trend may one day alter international relations: When anyone can rent a military, then super-rich and large corporations can become a new kind of superpower. Worse, mercenaries can start and elongate conflicts for profit, breeding endless war. A world with more mercenaries means a world with more war, which is why Prince’s proposal is so dangerous.
Prince is an amateur and makes rookie mistakes, which is probably why the generals laughed at him. Somehow, he believes 6,000 mercenaries and a small air force can solve Afghanistan’s problems. This is magical thinking: NATO could not succeed with 140,000 troops eight years ago, when the Taliban was in retreat. Now they run half the country. It is unclear what Prince’s 6,000 mercenaries will do now, other than create more Nisour incidents.
Prince’s plan, such that it is, involves putting contractors “at the lowest company and battalion levels” to train up the Afghan security forces. This is not new; U.S. troops have been doing this for years in one form or another. What is new is his mercenary air force, flown with Afghan markings, an Afghan and something he calls “a contractor safety pilot.” Whatever that means.
When I raised an army in West Africa, under worse conditions, it took more than a handful of contractors at the battalion and company levels to create a professional, fully functioning military. A lot more. The U.S. Army War College asked me to write a monograph on how we did this, and—spoiler alert—it’s more complicated than Prince’s breezy plan. Then again, Prince has never raised a legitimate army.
The price is a problem too. Prince promises his plan will save “American taxpayers more than $40 billion a year.” Don’t believe him. Prince has not shared any financial details with the public, a curious omission. Would you buy a house without first asking the price? Of course not.
But do we want Filipino, Colombian and Ugandan mercenaries fighting our wars for us, their way? To them, military operations might involve massacring a village that could harbor terrorists. We might have to send in the U.S. Marines just to save the situation and America’s reputation, costing far more than the $40 billion Prince thinks he will save.
Prince assures us that nothing will go wrong. To avoid Nisour incidents in the future, he wants to place all mercenaries under U.S. military law, known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, this resolves little. Take, for example, jurisdiction: What happens if a Guatemalan mercenary massacres an Afghan family while on an American contract? Does he go to trial in: a) Afghanistan b) U.S. c) Guatemala d) nowhere? No one really knows, and a good labor lawyer could probably shred the case in minutes.
Lastly, where has Prince been these last seven years? Why did he show up now? Like many mercenaries, he follows the money. After the Nisour Incident, he left Blackwater and helped raise a mercenary force for the United Arab Emirates. Now, he is working for the U.S.’s main geopolitical competitor, China.
Prince smells an opportunity in Donald Trump. His sister is Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, giving him access to the White House. Prince is looking for a billion-dollar paycheck while wrapping himself in the American flag. No one should fall for his con.