Erik Prince, the founder of controversial security firm Blackwater, has a new big idea. As before, this involves privatising the business of fighting wars and peacekeeping, in effect outsourcing military and foreign policy.
He wants to send roughly 5,000 mercenaries to Afghanistan, under the supervision of a ‘viceroy’ of some kind, to do the work of the United States’ military, for profit.
Worryingly, this mercenary army would come equipped with a ‘private air force’. As before, when Blackwater provided vast numbers of military contractors to assist the coalition in Iraq, this strategy is a chimera.
Donald Trump came to power on a nationalist wave. Now he is president, committed to an ‘America First’ policy, this wave has come into contact with the hard realities of administering the world’s sole superpower.
Ideological proponents of the America First ideal include Steven Bannon, the once and future Breitbart editor who was briefly the White House’s chief strategist. He is said to have favoured the Prince idea and to have fought bitterly with the president’s national security advisor, H. R. McMaster, on the subject of Afghanistan.
Bannon and others are predisposed to dialling down American global leadership. They say they don’t oppose US power, but do, in practice, oppose doing anything with it. So far as this affects the future of Afghanistan, these people think American resources should not be spent on such a conflict and such people.
Those who do favour an active American policy in Afghanistan are met with derision from the America First bloc. McMaster himself, a respected career military officer and thinker, has been subject to a particularly brutal campaign designed to blacken his name, with the hope that this makes him less appealing to a president who has until now never met a general he didn’t like.
His proposal, which involves a major American troop surge, has been denigrated as ‘McMaster’s War’, a military folly born of a man with an incorrigibly incorrect mentality. Some of what’s said gets very personal.
Supporters of Bannon and his faction are not good strategists; but they may yet prove effective smear artists.
This infighting in the White House is, understandably, not conducive to effective and sustained strategic thinking. And Bannon’s apparent departure – spurred on, according to reports, by another general, John Kelly – does not itself mean much. He will still have the ear of the president and will continue his political campaigning in the more aggressive parts of the right-wing internet.
All of this is proving less than comforting to old foreign policy hands. John McCain, despite his recent diagnosis with brain cancer, has been threatening for nearly a month to provide his own strategy for Afghanistan.
McCain’s plan is the product of deep irritation, not just with Trump and his staff, but also with the previous eight years of American policy under Barack Obama. Under Obama, the number of Americans in Afghanistan surged before dropping, in his final term, to a low ebb.
There are fewer than 10,000 there now, despite the increasing strength of the Afghan Taliban and the depressing news that IS has had some success in establishing a foreign province in the country.
Despite one of Trump’s more high profile military actions – dropping a GBU-43/B MOAB (otherwise known as the ‘Mother of All Bombs’) on an IS-occupied tunnel network – he seems to have done little to counter this new IS presence in Afghanistan, or to deal with the more essential and long-term threat from the Taliban.
This strategic bottleneck is evident, even as Trump tweets that he will make ‘many decisions’, on Afghanistan and other subjects. It suggests that there had been no decisions taken up until last week.
These things matter because American policy matters. And confused policy makes things worse for Afghanistan and Afghans. Abandoning Afghanistan, either entirely or to the Taliban, IS and America’s mercenaries, would likely be worse even than indecision. At least in a state of indecision, there is a possibility that the right choice will be made.
Now, though, the president has given a televised speech about the country. He has affirmed an apparent desire to win the war, and suggested that there would be no hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Prince’s idea was not the right one, but it remains a salutary lesson. This is what American foreign policy could still look like in the Trump era. But if 8,000 American troops were unable to stabilise Afghanistan, the job cannot be done by 5,000 mercenaries.
But Blackwater in Iraq was fractious and often unprofessional. Its contractors got into frequent conflicts with state militaries. Some of them committed war crimes. When they got into trouble, they needed rescuing. When they were killed, there was pressure on governments to avenge their losses.
None of this could be ironed out of a plan like Prince’s. Mercenary conflicts are as they are. They cannot be sanitised or improved. They are necessarily violent and simple and brutish.
As Trump and his generals have acknowledged, the work the United States is trying to do in Afghanistan is more complex than this. A stable Afghanistan is not only a boon for regional security, it is a country where people are not murdered by terrorist organisations for having transgressed, where sectarian conflict is not stirred up and prosecuted and religious violence is combated and finally stamped out.
None of this good work could never be undertaken or completed at arm’s length, with mercenary help.
In reality, of course, the people who support a hands-off approach to Afghanistan and other conflicts care little about the country. It is a problem on their watch, not a bad situation from which something good may come. The America First doctrine means everywhere else second, and in this case Afghanistan last.
Donald Trump has announced the upshot of this policy fracas. He chose that Afghanistan is to be helped by the United States rather than abandoned. His inclination may tend towards total withdrawal, though his respect for ‘the Generals’, notably capitalised, seems to have impelled a more sensible strategy.
Nothing could be worse, though, than Prince’s much-discussed mercenary prospectus, which would leave America content to delegate the business of leadership to private concerns, unprepared to risk blood, but happy to use as much treasure as it takes to outsource the problems of pre-eminence. The risk of such an approach remains potent. We must hope cooler heads prevail.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.