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Trump’s changing view of Afghanistan: are private armies part of the plan?

EPA/Muhammad Sadiq

Trump’s changing view of Afghanistan: are private armies part of the plan?

Donald Trump has defied expectation by pledging to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan. In an address from Arlington, Virginia, the president announced that, following a review of the US strategy in Afghanistan, he had concluded that hasty withdrawal would be a mistake and that “our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made”.

This, he said, involves using “all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome”.

Ahead of Trump’s statement, it was widely reported that the White House was considering turning to the private sector to draw up a plan to deploy troops there.

Trump did not openly discuss such plans in his speech, but he did not rule them out either. His address was noticeably light on detail.

One of the private consultants tasked with the planning is well known in private security circles – Erik Prince, CEO of the private military firm Academi, previously called Blackwater. His organisation ran one of the largest and most heavily armed private military operations in post-invasion Iraq.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Prince set out his vision for a private military solution to resolve the “expensive disaster” in early 2017. He draws on several historical cases for inspiration, such as the East India Company, which effectively ruled large parts of India with its private army during British rule, and General MacArthur, who administered post-war Japan.

Prince proposed to put an “American viceroy” in charge in Afghanistan to consolidate authority. This person would have significant decision making powers “so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions”. His proposal implies that the viceroy is meant to have authority over all coalition efforts and the ability to allot property rights.

Trump didn’t speak directly to this in his Virginia address, but he did rail against the current approach to making decisions, arguing:

Micromanagement from Washington DC does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgement and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.

To address the current effectiveness problems of the Afghan army, Prince has, in other media appearances, talked of bringing in private military and security companies to live, train, advise and lead their local counterparts.

If this is what he has in mind as he puts together his plan for the Trump administration, there is significant reason for concern and it is unlikely to succeed.

Powerful local actors

There are powerful actors who have a vested interest in the status quo and little incentive to change the current order. Afghan warlords have their own lucrative private security operations, so Prince’s plan would directly threaten their business model. They are dependent on a certain degree of insecurity, which they often spread themselves, while selling security services at the same time. They would almost certainly oppose a foreign competitor entering the market. The result would be various private security outfits using force to promote their business interests and eliminate others from the market.

Many of these warlords are well-connected in the Afghan government. Some are even high-ranking officials themselves. Foreign private actors taking control of territory, cutting off access to resources and taking over political power would alienate the local elites in power. A massive redistribution of power of this kind would certainly exacerbate the conflict.

Market forces

Private forces can indeed be a highly effective option for increasing combat power. But their performance depends on the competitive pressures of the market. They only perform at their peak when there is financial incentive to do so. Several private military or security firms need to be contracted to perform similar tasks to keep up competitive pressure. This, in turn, induces a source of friction into the military operation. Various companies – potentially from different countries - need to be co-ordinated, and that’s even before you factor in how they engage with the Afghan army.

The early days of the Iraq operation demonstrated the problems in such an undertaking. Coordinating the different players was difficult and commanders often didn’t know who operated in their area of responsibility. Friendly fire incidents occurred, and private companies collided with military procedures. It took several years to build a robust co-ordination system and improve the situation.

News of Trump’s inauguration reaches Afghanistan. EPA

Prince’s proposal suggests a single corporate provider, or a prime contractor, handing out subcontracts and running the operation. In both cases, once the contract is awarded, competition would be non-existent. The client would be dependent on a single private company. Replacing that company would be almost impossible due to the enormous size of the contract.

The absence of competition eliminates any incentive for efficiency and opens the client up to all kinds of vulnerabilities. The private military or security company could increase prices, overcharge or compromise on quality. That makes this kind of operation unlikely to deliver on the kind of efficiency and effectiveness that Prince seems to envisage.

Making it worse?

The proposal does not solve, and probably even aggravates, the major conundrum of counterinsurgency operations with foreign intervention such as Afghanistan. According to Prince, Taliban groups want to “destroy the American way of life”. Taliban groups certainly do not care for the American way of life but they fought the coalition forces for different reasons. Many of the insurgents were “accidental guerillas”, motivated to fight because a foreign force invaded their land.

Against this backdrop, the imposition of a corporate actor, modelled after a former colonial entity, seeking to secure access the economic crucial areas by using private soldiers, in combination with a foreign viceroy being able to assign property rights, would be a propaganda win for the insurgency. Moreover, it’s certainly the recipe for an even larger mobilisation of opposition.

Whether the Trump administration will take up the proposal is uncertain. Several high-ranking security experts in Washington are not keen on privatised missions, but influence in Washington is a wavering commodity. One can say a lot of things about Prince, but not that he doesn’t know how to take advantage of an opportunity.