Erik Prince And The New Generation Of PMC Power
And what should really worry us about his plans for Afghanistan, Venezuela, and beyond
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In America's continuing efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan, it looks like the United States and the Taliban are closer than ever to some kind of a peace deal in the graveyard of reasonable interventions. This month will mark another attempt at a "reduction in violence" for a week, because calling it a ceasefire means the Taliban can't exercise their rights to stand their ground as all good Floridians do.
Putting the guns down is going to be the easy part, as it always is when people try to end wars. Because not shoot each other in the face is a vacuum, an absence of violence, and if there's one thing insurgents love, it's a void. Which they are happy to fill.
GHŌR, Afghanistan (May 28, 2012) – Former Taliban fighters line up to handover their rifles to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during a reintegration ceremony at the provincial governor’s compound. The re-integrees formally announced their agreement to join the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program during the ceremony. (Department of Defense photograph by Lt. j. g. Joe Painter/RELEASED)
Nice peace: can you keep it?
The hard part is going to be what happens next, and so far no one has good answers to any of these questions:
What would a power-sharing agreement between Kabul and the Taliban look like?
What kind of foreign aid could be provided to a country run (at least partially) by an insurgent organization?
What will the US military presence look like in Afghanistan after the shooting stops?
The first one promises to be the most complex, and the most likely inciting event to the next great Afghan civil war, since the Boys from Balochistan don't see the government in Kabul as legitimate. Which is why they've been negotiating directly with the Americans all along. And there are plenty of actors in Afghanistan that aren’t fans of the Taliban, either.
The second one we kind of know the answer to, since when the Taliban seized power last time, foreign aid came to a stop. This may not happen this time around, assuming the Taliban and the current government managed to get along.
The last one is one we don't really have a model for, since the last time the US left a country it was the 1970s, it was Vietnam, and there were people trying to cling to helicopter skids. That won't happen this time around, mainly because most of helicopters have wheels, not skids.
Harder to hang on to.
The activation of Erik Prince's 2017 pitch to the White House to privatize the war in Afghanistan.
Enter Erik Prince
Here's the thing: there are no "good" ideas when it comes to Afghanistan. Or any of the other places where wars of varying degrees are being carried out. There was a time when war was simpler, if not less bloody: you hounded your enemy until your boot was on their neck, and then you showed them how willing you were to use the worst weapons in your arsenal to end things.
Or you crushed their infrastructure to the point where they had to surrender or face the fact that their entire country was going to starve to death.
Now, it's a kinder, gentler world. You can't even shoot a kid anymore without someone getting upset about it. Turns out you can kill a prisoner, though, and that's an okay thing to do.
So one of the less bad ideas would be to turn the job of securing Afghanistan over to private military companies like the one Erik Prince used to run. A company he felt was an exercise in patriotism and not a cold-blooded grab for big government money.
It doesn't hurt that he made big government money as a result of all that patriotism. I mean, someone has to free the shit out of the world, might as well be the mercenaries, am I right?
It's true that companies like Blackwater and its ilk have little experience in post-conflict operations, but it's not like it's that much different from what they do now.
Or what the American military is already doing, so given the symbiotic relationship that already exists with DoD and the PMCs?
It feels like an easy transition and it works for a few reasons.
It gets boots off the ground in an election year
No one running for president of the United States wants to be seen as being soft on national security. And while the Democrats are painting the Trump administration as the rise of the 4th Reich with their border concentration camps, let's not forget how much better Obama was at deporting people.
Though President Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his first term, his administration lags far behind President Barack Obama’s pace of deportations. Obama — who immigrant advocates at one point called the “deporter in chief” — removed 409,849 people in 2012 alone. Trump, who has vowed to deport “millions” of immigrants, has yet to surpass 260,000 deportations in a single year.
And while Obama deported 1.18 million people during his first three years in office, Trump has deported fewer than 800,000.
Here's how that, and the privatization of wars, works for the benefit of the next Commander in Chief: they get to make the case that they're securing the country without using troops to do it. Never mind that those contractors are paid by government funds, no one's thanking a contractor for their service anytime soon.
They also get to act more fiscally responsible, pointing out how much less it costs to deploy contractors than American troops. Never mind that this isn't always the case, or that it will mean the loss of American jobs as PMCs push out those positions to as many non-Americans as possible to maximize profits.
But it works for them, too.
It allows unilateral actions
Trump has done a dandy job of dismantling traditional security relationships, something that the Americans have relied on as a way to sell big wars in the past. Because things like a "coalition of the willing" sound like we're all united against the Evil Empire. Even when that coalition is pretty much the US, the Brits, Australians, and a couple of European countries hoping to benefit from going along for the ride.
But if you privatize places like Afghanistan, you get to avoid all of that. And while those countries will of necessity point out that they, too, are not sending troops to those places, it makes it possible for them to leverage privatize forces, too.
And a coalition of mercenaries plays a lot better for everyone back home.
It allows flexibility
Because you're not building plans based on the availability of particular units and their equipment, but rather putting out task orders for pre-vetted companies, you simplify everything, from procurements to deployments, to bringing everyone home when it's all said and done.
And since you're just holding someone to a contract and not moving things yourself? You just write the checks.
It's a system that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) already follows: the agency itself does very little while contracting out to its "implementing partners" to complete its objectives.
This has the added benefit of it not being entirely your fault when it all fails miserably, unless its a tricky budget year and Congress is feeling less than generous with its allocations that fiscal period.
Why People Will Object
Because it's Erik Prince, and defense media outlets have made him and companies like Blackwater into something between Voldemort and flat earthers: he is either by turns an ominous figure looming over the future of international relations, or a geardo buffoon who's benefited from the fanboys in DC who like the idea of their own private armies.
On his watch, Blackwater massacred Iraqi civilians; promoted “a culture of lawlessness” that yielded allegations of sex trafficking and weapons smuggling; and even threatened its own employees.
Except that under the watch of presidents and a whole lot of uniforms in the chain of command, that kind of thing happened with troubling frequency in Iraq, most notably the massacre of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha.
Moral turpitude, then, is not strictly contractor purview.
They're the easiest scapegoat, but now that similar behaviors to what happened in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007 are manifesting themselves in those we'd like to think are held to a higher standard?
That's when the conversation gets awkward.
Perhaps a well-trained PMC could affect the dramatic change required to stabilize the country that the Pentagon's bureaucracy structurally prohibits, but Prince seems constitutionally incapable of achieving that goal.
The current commander-in-chief and his party seem pretty bent on burning the country down with the constitution as it exists. We are living through a time when the old structures are being sorely tested, and while they are not failing, per se, we are being forced to wonder whether what comes next looks anything like a world we're going to be happy with.
Here's the thing: Prince is the PMC bogeyman come to alarming life, but not because he's the Prince of Darkness, but because his company continues to work in ways that aren't just morally objectionable, they're blatantly illegal.
And that's the kind of person Trump and his administration respect: someone who gets done what they want, no matter the costs.
Someone who's willing to bend the rules, so long as they're bent in Trump's favor.
While we'd like to think that's for ideological reasons, allowing us the freedom to elevate Trump to evil demagogue, the reasons are much more pragmatic and come down to the things they always have: money and power.
It's not Erik Prince that should worry us, but what he represents: an erosion of institutional restraint that means people like Prince are going to get the calls we'd like to think are being handled by adults.
Why He Should Worry Us
Because he's not just a businessman, but an ideologue, someone who's selling the fanboys their own little armies, and spy networks. And he's wrapping it in patriotism, comparing the efforts of his contractors to the likes of the Flying Tigers in World War II.
In case you're curious about Gen. Chennault and how much of a mercenary force the Flying Tigers really were, drop on over to History Net because, um, Prince? Not wrong.
And he knows his audience: right around the time that he was peddling privatizing the Afghan war, Prince was also reportedly shopping an off-the-books intelligence and rendition network that would report only to the president and his staff. And while that sounds like the rewrite of a National Treasure direct-to-DVD reboot, it's the kind of thing that would appeal to a president that likes to keep things from the people.
People like the president before this one.
Because Barack Obama took the drone program to places even Dick Cheney would shake his head and go, "Yeah, that's probably too far," and this is a man who shoots his friends.
There's no such thing as too far for Cheney.
But Trump is only continuing along a path begun post-9/11 and ever since: that we will do whatever it takes to win the war on terror. Even though no one can articulate what that "win" looks like, or whether we can ever "win" at all.
Because no one wants to be "that" president that took their eye off the national security ball.
So we have all kinds of things Prince is getting up to:
Continuing to work in Iraq under another business name
Pitching his services to Venezuelan leaders under sanctions from the US
Handing control of his main company over to a massive Chinese conglomerate
Trying to get around pesky arms dealing laws in selling an air force to South Sudan
Yeah, But No
I'm not, as it turns out, an Erik Prince fanboy.
I don't think that contracting out postwar security efforts in Afghanistan is a good idea.
It's also not the worst idea anyone's ever had.
Back when the idea of privatizing the Afghan war was first floated, I thought, "But can he really do any worse?"
And there's no indication (yet) that this is an option for post-military actions in Afghanistan.
Watch this space.
But it's not Prince I'm worried about.
It's the new private military power generation that he's leading.
The government struggles with transparency as it is.
Putting security under a contract? Doesn't help that.
Still, the question remains: once peace breaks out, what next?
Like it or not, Erik Prince has a reasonable answer.