Mercenary Kings

Erik Prince, with Blackwater mercenaries, in Yemen.

Erik Prince, with Blackwater mercenaries, in Yemen.

It’s highly unlikely that President Trump will adopt Erik Prince’s proposal to privatise the war in Afghanistan. Prince’s plan, first published as on op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in May, triggered a heated discussion that remains ongoing. The piece was especially provocative coming from the nominally reserved WSJ.

But why, given, his own recent history, was everyone taking Prince so seriously? Was he a senator or Trump advisor? It was as though Blackwater never happened.

America’s mercenary-in-chief describes his approach as “the MacArthur Model,” inspired by the sweeping authority that General Douglas MacArthur enjoyed during the occupation of Japan.

US efforts would be centralised under one presidential envoy that directs military support, intelligence, and humanitarian aid. Nearly 10,000 troops would be replaced by 5,500 private military contractors, mainly former Special Operations soldiers from nearly a dozen countries, who would serve in an “advisory role.”

Advisers would be embedded with more than ninety Afghan combat battalions, and also provide logistical support through administrative tasks.

Prince also calls for a 90 plane private air force, that would transport soldiers, help with medical evacuations, and also provide fire support approved by Kabul. He brags in USA Today that the “approach would cost less than 20% of the $48 billion being spent in Afghanistan this year,” and in the Wall Street Journal, explicitly compares it to the presidency armies that were set up by the British East India Company.

Indeed, Prince’s presidential envoy is explicitly described as a “viceroy,” which is why he has been accused of neocolonialism. It is also worth noting that in his enthusiasm for mass privatisation (which he calls “bankruptcy reorganisation”) the mercenary totally ignores that it was the sheer recklessness and cultural insensitivity of the presidency armies that led to the 1857 Indian Revolt.

Unsurprisingly, the MacArthur Model has been savagely criticised across the board. Prince’s plan to make Afghanistan declare bankruptcy, and then appoint a trustee that he calls a “viceroy,” has been particularly targeted for its cruelty and unnecessary parallels to British imperialism.

Furthermore, Prince has been called a profiteer for recommending that mercenaries take a greater role in Afghanistan, as he would obviously make a lot of money off of such an initiative.

Defence officials are also uneasy about Prince’s proposals. For instance, there is no clear procedure for handling mercenaries under the 2014 US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, which only guaranteed American soldiers immunity from prosecution – not guns for hire.  

Nevertheless, Prince’s arguments do seem bound to gain more influence, even if Trump doesn’t implement them at the moment. The fact is that private armies are growing, and have already proven to be highly effective in a number of conflicts.

Nigeria has hired South African mercenaries to fight in its war against Boko Haram. Companies like Typhon are quickly setting up what is essentially a privatised navy in order to combat piracy.

There are roughly three contractors for every US soldier in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, contractors double the number of American troops. Under Obama, more mercenaries died in Iraq and Afghanistan than soldiers.

The mercenary industry has been evolving for thirty years, both damaged and electrified by its involvement in Iraq. It seems inevitable that such a rich and powerful industry will not only take a greater role in military decision making, but also, other key functions of national armies. Prince has not been successful in pushing his Afghanistan option, but that doesn’t change the overall trend.

This is especially troubling because of the politics that run through many of his statements. Indeed, whenever Prince refers to Washington, it is usually with disrespect. “Troops fighting for their lives should not have to ask a lawyer sitting in air conditioning 500 miles away for permission to drop a bomb,” he writes in The Washington Post.

“Our plodding, hand wringing and over-caution have prolonged the war, and the suffering it bears upon the Afghan population,” he complained.

During a 2010 speech in Holland, the Blackwater chief outlined this point more dramatically, when he explained that he started the company after the international community failed to stop the Rwandan genocide. “It really bothered me. It made me realise you can’t sit back and pontificate. You have to act,” he said.

Clearly, in Prince’s worldview, it is armed men who do the real work, while civilians in organisations like the United Nations never do anything. 

For now, in Afghanistan at least, it seems that conventional approaches will take the lead. Trump may have threatened to fire General John Nicholson, and severely criticised his military leadership for “not winning,” but this is likely part of his overall effort to seem like a tough boss.

It’s not necessarily indicative of the privatization of American security policy. That’s better left to happen by itself, slowly, but surely, punctuated by the polemics of its supporters. 

Photograph courtesy of Reseau International. Published under a Creative Commons License.