A money man, an ambassador, a former SEAL, and a former Army policy advisor to the Joint Chiefs are all trying to persuade the Trump administration to outsource the war in Afghanistan to hired gun contractors.
- The money man, Steve Feinberg, is working the policy circuit in Washington trying to drum up support for the idea.
- Helping him is Ambassador Michael Gfoeller, who has connections to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and seemingly everyone in Washington D.C.
- Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and the founder of Blackwater, a notorious security contractor with a controversial record in Iraq, is onboard as well. Prince, whose sister is Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education) has been a sometimes advisor to the Trump campaign/administration. Prince could be a major beneficiary of any contractor-focused strategies in Afghanistan via his company, Frontier Services Group, which could supply Afghan security forces with logistics and aviation support.
- George Krivo, former soldier and advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to get the Chiefs on board with the plan.
There certainly could be a role for hiring contractors in Afghanistan. Finding ways for the Afghani government to pay for them would make this prospect even more attractive. But there are two major impediments to a successful campaign to put contractors on the ground in Afghanistan.
- The opposition of Defense Secretary James Mattis. After leading Marines into Fallujah to re-stabilize the Iraqi city after failures by Blackwater, Mattis is reluctant to employ contractors. Mark Perry writes in The American Conservative:
…when Steve Bannon suggested that Defense Secretary Mattis meet with Feinberg, Mattis politely but firmly declined. Mattis’s “no” was, in large part, the result of having to subdue Fallujah after four Blackwater contractors died there in 2004 (“he’s convinced that his Marines died for Blackwater,” I was told, “and he hasn’t forgotten that”). For Mattis, the issue with the Feinberg initiative is accountability. “The problem is that mercenaries don’t come under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” a senior Pentagon officer says. “If they were under a UCMJ structure there could be confidence in command and control and there would be accountability. But they’re not; which means their behavior is impossible to control. Young testosterone filled men carrying weapons and operating outside the law is a recipe for disaster. That scared the hell out of Mattis in 2004, and it scares the hell out of him now.”
- The real problems with the war in Afghanistan don’t arise in that country at all, but in nearby Pakistan. Pakistan is home to hundreds of Saudi-funded Islamic schools, which teach hatred of America there. Perry continues:
As crucially, TAC has been told, Mattis doesn’t believe that Prince or Feinberg understand the conflict. Indeed, according to a senior Pentagon officer, both Mattis and McMaster believe the real challenge for the Trump administration isn’t Afghanistan but Pakistan—which is what former CIA officer Bruce Riedel told Barack Obama aboard Air Force One after his own 90-day deep dive into the Afghanistan problem back in 2009. The Taliban are making gains in Afghanistan, Riedel said, because Pakistan is allowing them to.
That’s true now, eight years later. The one who knows this best is McMaster. During the first week of April, he appointed Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, to head up the NSC’s South Asia desk. The Curtis appointment signaled McMaster’s acceptance of Curtis’s view that to succeed in Afghanistan the U.S. needed to be tougher with Islamabad. Curtis made this point prior to her appointment in a widely circulated paper that she wrote with Husain Haqqani, an official of the Hudson Institute.
In “A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties,” Curtis and Haqqani proposed the adoption of a new get-tough approach to Pakistan as a necessary centerpiece for resolving the Afghanistan war. The United States, the two wrote, should “no longer sacrifice its anti-terrorism principles in the region for the sake of pursuing an ‘even-handed’ South Asia policy, but rather should levy costs on Pakistan for policies that help perpetuate terrorism in the region.” It won’t be enough for the Trump White House to somehow “coax” a change in views in Pakistan, as was done during the Obama years. What will be needed is for the United States to enforce its principles, even if that means losing an ally.
Using contractors to achieve a specific, recognizable goal in Afghanistan is a great plan. But throwing good money after bad with no defined end-game in Afghanistan is a terrible idea. The Trump administration needs to define exactly what it hopes to achieve in Afghanistan and then use contractors wherever possible to achieve those goals and keep U.S. servicemen focused on their goal of protecting America from enemies that could actually hurt it.
Dyncorp, a multi-national contracting firm, and Prince’s FSG are filled with American veterans and other professional warriors who may not fly under the UCMJ, but who nevertheless can get certain jobs done while the American military focuses on more immediate threats like North Korea.