On September 16th, 2007, medical student Ahmed Haithem was driving near Nisour Square in Bagdad, Iraq, when he was suddenly shot in the head, initiating an orgy of gunfire during which his terrified mother, still cradling her already dead son’s head on her shoulder, was riddled with bullets. In the end, 15 more people were dead, including a nine year old boy and 20 others were wounded, not a single one of them in the Blackwater convoy that dozens of witnesses said had opened fire without provocation.
It seemed that some justice, though slow, was being served when four of the Blackwater contractors who fired on that day were convicted in U.S. courts 7 years later. One, Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., accused of being the sniper who fired that first fatal shot that ended the life of Ahmed Haithem, received a life sentence.
Alas, this admittedly hollow victory for the families of those massacred was once again denied this August 4th, when Slatten’s conviction was overturned, and the same U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also ruled that the three others convicted on manslaughter charges be re-sentenced, finding that the convictions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Three days later, on August 7th, the man who founded the company these contractors (PMSCs) were working for, Blackwater Worldwide, Erik Prince, was given space in USA Today to publicly proclaim his plan for resolving another conflict his former company has profited from, in Afghanistan. In doing so, he tried to take advantage of many Americans’ almost supernatural belief in a capitalist solution to every problem. His argument was a simple one: privatize the war.
The heir to a billion dollar auto parts empire wrote, “The president can “restructure” the war, similar to bankruptcy reorganization. By aligning U.S. efforts under a presidential envoy, all strategic decisions regarding humanitarian aid, military support and intelligence become laser-focused on creating a stable, self-supporting Afghanistan.”
In the end, Prince explained that by turning over operations to what amounts to a mercenary force, the United States can have its cake and eat it too, paying as little as 20% of the current cost of $48 billion annually to win a war that the United States and its allies have failed to end over almost 17 years with singular technological and fiscal advantages.
Prince doesn’t explicitly state, but certainly implies, that an appointed envoy or, as he has said elsewhere, ‘viceroy’, likely himself, will be at the head of this private army, who will likely be wearing Afghan uniforms to increase the confusion. To my knowledge, Prince doesn’t speak either of the country’s official languages, Pashto or Dari, but he will somehow be able to navigate the intense ethnic and tribal rivalries that permeate the land, not to mention the fiercely independent nature of the Afghan people that has led historians to call the country “the graveyard of empires”.
There is also the problem of who wiould be legally responsible if his scheme were to be adopted. Prince seems to be saying it will be the Afghan government, but it’s hard to believe that that country will be asked either to pay or take responsibility for it. Thus, the United States (and possibly NATO allies if any of them can be convinced to go along with the plan) could find itself held to account if costs rise precipitously, as they often do where military contractors are concerned.
The recent past shows that these companies can cause severe legal headaches in the countries that employ them, “When plaintiffs have tried to sue companies like Blackwater and KBR, the companies have argued that they ought to enjoy the same immunity that the military does against certain lawsuits, since they are acting in lieu of the military.”
Besides, as Sean McFate of Georgetown University, who wrote the book, “The Modern Mercenary” recently explained to Esquire, “The conflict of interest in this is transparent. Most of these contractors are not even American, so there is also a lot of moral hazard.”
Another possible issue is that while Blackwater was an American company, Prince’s new outfit, Frontier Services Group (FSG), which would be called upon to supply its makeshift airforce to the effort, is actually based in Hong Kong and is partly owned by a large state controlled conglomerate called CITIC. FSG has deployed its contractors to a number of countries in support of the China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, especially in Africa, where the Beijing has been making large investments.
DynCorp and “The Laos option”
Prince wasn’t the only CEO of a defense contractor to propose a plan to privatize the Afghan conflict and his absurd championing of the British East India Company, which provided a patina of legitimacy for Britain’s colonial plunder in Asia more than a century ago, as a precedent, wasn’t even the worst idea on offer. That honor goes to the head of Cerebus Capital, which owns DynCorp, a company that has been caught up in numerous scandals of its own.
DynCorp was implicated in sexual slavery in both Bosnia and Colombia. In Afghanistan, as reported by the Huffington Post in 2010, “In a May 2009 meeting (Afghan) interior minister Hanif Atmar express(ed) deep concerns that lives could be in danger if news leaked that foreign police trainers working for U.S. commercial contractor DynCorp hired “dancing boys” to perform for them.”
“Dancing boys” or “Bacha Bazi”, is a euphemism for the child sex slavery that plagues the country, a practice that the Taliban, for all their many faults, were close to wiping out before they were toppled by the United States led invasion in response to the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Regardless, DynCorp’s Stephen Feinberg pushed what some have called the ‘Laos Option’ after the covert battles that took place in that southeast Asian country during the Vietnam War. Although it is a tiny country, Laos is blessed with almost 50 distinct ethnic groups.
The CIA, who led the “anti-communist” effort there, are believed to have supervised a secret war that resulted in the deaths of 10% of the country’s then population of just under 3 million. In prosecuting this off the books war, they chose one particular group to lead their campaign, the minority Hmong people, as their proxies. When things went south the Hmong were abandoned and many live in refugee camps in Thailand to this day; for its part the Agency still seems to view their depredations in Laos as a success.
As an unnamed source told the New York Times, Feinberg proposed giving, “the C.I.A. control over operations in Afghanistan, which would be carried out by paramilitary units and hence subject to less oversight than the military.”
The idea that the actions of the occupiers of Afghanistan should be subject to less oversight would be laughable if there wasn’t a man in the White House who might actually be entertaining it. Although Feinberg’s idea did receive some press coverage after he and Prince met with Trump advisors Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, the former Blackwater head has gotten much more, in part due to more advocacy but also the press’ fascination with him.
Pushback from Trump’s generals
While Prince, a former Navy Seal, has a certain gruff charisma, which was on full display when he was interviewed by Erin Burnett on CNN on the same day his USA Today op-ed was published, he is, at least in this writer’s opinion, essentially a trust fund baby living out a fantasy of martial rigor with terrible consequences for many innocent people he will never see or know.
The generals around Trump, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, are said to have ‘politely’ dismissed his and Feinberg’s ideas, according to multiple news sources, but these men are well aware that they don’t have final decision making power over this Administration’s Afghanistan policy.
It’s telling that Prince told Burnett that his USA Today oped was directed to an audience of one.
Two weeks ago, the final decision maker, President Donald Trump, weighed in on his plans for Afghanistan with characteristic vagueness, “We’re getting very close. It’s a very big decision for me. I took over a mess, and we’re going to make it a lot less messy.”
Some commentators have speculated that Prince was pushing his proposal so aggressively due in part to a fear that the president was going to axe his friend Bannon, something which reportedly happened as we were going to press, but regardless, he will have someone very close to Trump in his corner, his sister Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, along with Bannon’s ideological kin, like Stephen Miller and, quite possibly, Kushner, who was said to be a proponent of one or possibly both ideas presented to privatize the war.
Finally, although Prince has repeatedly stated that his effort would be limited in nature, given his record, it’s hard to believe that once the gravy train rolls out of the station he and his shareholders will be willing to put a stop to it, even in the highly unlikely event FSG (or DynCorp) achieve their goals in a reasonable amount of time.
Unfortunately, the generals’ main plan, yet another troop surge of up to 5000 additional soldiers (added to the 8000 already in theater) and increased air-strikes seems to just recycle the same strategies that have failed for almost two decades.
There is a third option that is almost never discussed: withdrawal. Besides ending the bleeding of American taxpayers, it will allow Afghans to chart their own destiny. It’s important to remember that Afghanistan wasn’t always this way, in the 1960s and 1970s, North American hippies flocked to the country in droves to smoke its hashish and experience its friendly culture.
The likely result of ending the war, a return of some faction of the Taliban to power in Kabul is a terrifying prospect on many counts, but, unlike the country’s nascent Islamic State affiliate, which they would vigorously stamp out, they have never been shown to have greater regional ambitions.
Pressure will be need to be brought to bear on Pakistan (and, although its highly unlikely, the Gulf monarchies) for both the support provided by its nationals and likely covert government assistance given to an ever growing number of Salafist groups, who are not only a threat to the safety and security of the country’s women and girls, but marginalized groups like the Shia Hazara increasingly being targeted by ISIS.
Although uniformly reactionary, the Taliban does have its ‘moderates’ (at least by local standards) and appears riven by infighting even as it controls more than half of the country’s territory, a situation that savvy diplomacy could exploit over time. It isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but it’s better than the one most Afghans currently live (and die) in.
There is little doubt in my mind that either of Prince’s or Feinberg’s proposals, if enacted, would result in anything more than further disaster but perhaps even limited success for either would be much worse, creating a model that would spread privatized war across the globe.