The Afghan Offer on the Table
A New York Times article from July 10 reported a meeting between the higher echelon of the Trump administration and two of the leading players in the private military/security sector. The first is Eric Prince, the former founder of Blackwater and the brother of Betsy DeVos, the United States Secretary of Education. The second is Steve Feinberg, a financier and founder of Cerberus Capital Management and a former adviser for the Trump campaign. The topic on the table was the War in Afghanistan. Some of the administration advisers view Afghanistan as a lost battle, a perpetuate conflict that at best will take decades to bring into a reasonable conclusion. The alternative discussed in this meeting was the outsourcing of the conflict. Instead of letting American soldiers die in a never-ending war while paying a harsh political price; the solution presented was letting private military/security companies (PMSC) run the show and carry the cost and blame.
An op-ed by Eric Price portrays the general outline of this road-map. Prince suggests the appointment of a viceroy with what it seems absolute power within the Afghani domain that will run not only the war effort against the Taliban, but also de-facto run the country. Though to some this plan may sound appealing, a modern and elegant solution in the spirit of “the market can do what the state cannot,” in fact it represents a gross violation of international norms and basic rights. By judging PMSCs performances thus far PMSCs won’t “solve” the Afghan problem. At best, it will make Prince and Feinberg richer on the expense of tax payers and the Afghani people. On the most basic level, Prince did not explain how or why would the Afghan people and government will accept this viceroy. Despite suffering from serious problems, Afghanistan is a sovereign state with functioning institutions. Ignoring those basic realities takes this model more than a several steps closer to neo-colonialism. There was a period in human history where mercenaries carved their own territory to rule by force or bargain. Historically justified or not, this is not the world system we operate within it today.
Also, in an op-ed on the topic, Deborah Avant, a renowned expert of PMSC, detailed the limited added value of PMSCs in counter-terrorism settings. PMSCs do better when there is a competition between companies on contracts and missions, the opposite of the scenario suggested by Prince. Also, data show that PMSCs increase conflict severity, not reduce it. Finally, PMSCs have different standards of operation than armed forces and typically are not as effected by regulation and oversight.
At the moment, the military leadership is pushing back on the offer. However, Trump, that favors this idea, gave the generals one year to show progress, “or else”. As recent history has shown, this is obviously an almost impossible mission given the complexity of the Afghan arena. Meanwhile, even if they receive an icy reception by many, Prince and Feinberg have the President’s ear and strong ties to the Trump administration. Though implausible at the moment, a new crisis (for example North Korea or Venezuela) that will prioritize other arenas over Afghanistan can weaken military objection, opening a crack in the door for Prince and Feinberg to make their viceroy fantasy come true.