Here’s a crazy idea floating around Washington these days, outlandish even by today’s outlandish standards: The United States should hire a mercenary army to “fix” Afghanistan, a country where we’ve been at war since 2001, spending billions along the way. The big idea here is that they could extricate U.S. soldiers from this quagmire, and somehow solve it.
Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.
It could get worse. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Prince laid out a plan whereby the fighting force would be led by an American viceroy who would report directly to Trump. Modeled after General Douglas MacArthur, who ruled Japan after World War II, the viceroy would consolidate all American power in a single person. His mission: Do whatever it takes to pacify Afghanistan. No more backseat driving of the war from pesky bureaucrats in Washington, or restrictive rules of engagement imposed on soldiers. An American viceroy with a privatized fighting force would make trains run on time in Afghanistan—if they had trains.
Who would this viceroy be? Probably Prince had himself in mind, and that should worry everyone. Under his watch, Blackwater military contractors opened fire in a city square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians in one of the worst episodes of the Iraq war. When asked by Congress how he addressed potential wrongdoing among his employees in 2007, he said: “If there is any sort of … problem, whether it's bad attitude, a dirty weapon, riding someone's bike that's not his, we fire him. … If they don't hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle.”
Prince has been developing these ideas for a while. In his Journal op-ed, he wrote that the British East India Company should be the model for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. This private company was the instrument of British colonization of India for centuries, led by a viceroy with monarchical powers and a private army to rule the natives. Prince’s solution for Afghanistan amounts to neo-colonialism.
There are other problems with Prince’s proposal. MacArthur was fired by President Harry Truman for abuse of power—hardly a venerable model for a viceroy. Also, the armies of the British East India Company did much harm in India, and bankrupted the company. British taxpayers had to bail it out in 1770, and then the government had to seize control in 1874.
For Prince, a large mercenary force inspired by the British East India Company would be Blackwater 2.0, a phenomenal business opportunity for someone with White House connections. (His sister is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.) But he’s also got inroads of his own. In January, he held secret meetings in the Seychelles, allegedly to establish a back channel between Trump and Vladimir Putin (a spokesman for Prince denied to the Post that the meeting had anything to with Trump). Or perhaps he just wants to come home. After the Iraq fiasco, he went into self-exile, helping Abu Dhabi raise a secret army in the desert and working for China in Africa.
Despite the ridiculousness of all this, the idea appears to be gaining traction in Washington. Bannon recently went to the Pentagon to push for it, and others in the private military industry are lobbying in support. Their interests are more likely profit than concern for Afghans. The fact that the idea has champions in the West Wing sends a message to the whole galaxy of private military contractors: Business may be booming once again! If America entertains the possibility of outsourcing one of its most intractable foreign policy boondoggles, it may well push the market to spit out huge numbers of these fighters. It is supply and demand, generating tens of thousands of soldiers of fortune.
One might think these are different times—that the abuses of the British East India Company are irrelevant to the current age. That would be wrong.
Like Prince, I was a private military contractor for years. I worked mostly in Africa, where I helped stop a genocide before it started, demobilized warlords, helped UN peacekeeping missions, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and raised small armies for U.S. interest. Based on my experience, I would submit that not everything Prince suggests is crazy. We are seeing a new breed of conflict-entrepreneur roam the battlefield, selling war to anyone who can afford it. They are not just lone soldiers of fortune toting AK-47s, but small armies with armed aircraft and special-forces units. Despite the claims of those who have never seen an actual battle, these privately contracted fighters can be quite effective, and this is why the industry is flourishing.
The truth is, countries are increasingly turning to private military solutions to solve their problems, all in the shadows. Two years ago, Nigeria secretly hired mercenaries after a six-year struggle against Boko Haram, a jihadi terrorist group. They showed up with attack helicopters and special forces teams, and accomplished in weeks what the Nigerian military alone could not: Push Boko Haram out of much of the territory it held in Nigeria. Some quietly wonder if the same thing could be done against the Islamic State or al Shabaab.
Nigeria is not unique. Russia, the Emirates, Uganda and even terrorist groups, hire private fighters to wage secret wars everywhere. Ships enlist them as “embarked security” to fight pirates. There are even private cyber warriors, called "hack back companies,” who hunt hackers that attack their clients. In some ways, the Trump administration is just making this furtive trend fully apparent, a final stroke and affirmation of what has been building for nearly two decades now.
However, as an ex-military contractor, I cannot think of a worse solution for Afghanistan. There are many concerns about the safety, accountability, and morality of going into business with these types of outfits. When I was in the industry, I had multiple opportunities to go “off contract” and form a Praetorian Guard. In ancient Rome, this infamous imperial bodyguard assassinated 14 emperors, appointed five, and even sold the office to the highest bidder on one occasion. Praetorianism is a real thing, and something Prince or a viceroy could not easily control.
Alternatively, what would happen if Russia, China, or Pakistan offered this private army a better deal? There would be a bidding war for the loyalty of the force, something I saw warlords do in Africa. Unlike soldiers, these fighters would be akin to products on an eBay of war.
Mercenaries also breed war and suffering. For-profit warriors proliferate armed conflict—as long as there is someone to pay, there will always be a war to start, expand or prolong. History shows us that they often maraud between contracts, preying on the innocent. In the Middle Ages, they would sometimes extort whole cities in racketeering schemes, as happened to Siena, Italy 37 times between 1342 and 1399. Others set up de facto kingdoms of their own, or just took one over, as the happened to Milan in the 1400s. Sometimes they were hired to commit atrocities, sparing their clients from this nasty work. In 1377, the Pope’s private army was ordered to annihilate the town of Cesena, massacring all its inhabitants.
But contractors are not intrinsically evil; in fact, they can be a force for good. They are a tool, like fire—they can burn down a building or power a steam engine. What good could they do? They can prevent mass atrocities, police warlords, hunt terrorist groups, augment peacekeeping missions, raise legitimate armies or enforce the rule of law—I know because I did these things. This is doable, but requires a small force under certain conditions and proper oversight. It is wholly different than the massive mercenary army Prince seems to envision to rule Afghanistan.
The privatization of war is already underway. Denial is not a strategy to manage this growing problem. Prince sees how it can be harnessed for U.S. interests and is pushing his proposal, as are others in the industry. But America is not ready for such a radical idea, and may never be.