Erik Prince Sells War Privatization Plan To Afghans After Frosty Reception From US Commanders

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
  • Blackwater founder Erik Prince is once again selling his plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan — this time directly to Afghan leaders.
  • Prince met with a range of influential Afghans in late September in an effort to win support for his plan, which envisions a force of private military contractors taking over for most of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Senior U.S. military officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have dismissed Prince’s proposal, but the controversial billionaire has found a receptive audience among some Afghans.

Erik Prince is taking his plan to privatize the war effort in Afghanistan directly to Afghan leaders after senior U.S. defense officials declared it a non-starter.

The billionaire founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater was in Kabul late in September, meeting with key tribal and political figures to sell his vision of replacing U.S. troops with paramilitaries under the auspices of his latest venture, Frontier Services.

Prince believes a lean force of about 6,000 former U.S. and European special operations commandos can achieve what as many as 140,000 NATO troops at the height of the Afghanistan War “surge” could not. He claims the plan would cost about $5 billion a year, a small fraction of the $45 billion the Pentagon spent in Afghanistan in 2017. (RELATED: The Cost Of America’s Longest War)

Prince’s plan has been widely dismissed among top U.S. military commanders, but there are a host of influential Afghan leaders willing to hear it out, according to reports published Thursday in The Washington Post and The New York Times. In the span of a few days, Prince met with tribal militia leaders, former cabinet officials and presidential candidates in an effort to revive interest in the idea.

In taking his proposal directly to Afghan power brokers, Prince is doing an end run around the U.S. military establishment, which has tried to keep the controversial businessman at arm’s length. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday that neither the U.S. military nor the Afghan government is interested in what Prince is selling.

“We have vital interests here and we are pursuing them with legitimate forces that can do that,” Votel told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing, according to Task & Purpose. “Even broader than that: The bilateral security agreement that I think is in place with Afghanistan does not allow this. The Afghans don’t want this. They would have to approve this as well, and I think as you’ve seen from some of their comments, they do not support this either.”

Votel’s comments echoed those made by his boss, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, at a press conference in August. In a characteristically terse response to a question about Prince’s plan, Mattis told reporters that privatizing the Afghanistan war is “probably not a wise idea.”

Among some Afghans, however, Prince’s case is bolstered by worries that the U.S. war strategy is failing to turn the tide against the Taliban insurgency. Senior Afghan officials estimate U.S.-backed security forces are now losing between 30 and 40 members per day to Islamic insurgents, higher than the rate in 2016, when the Pentagon stopped releasing official casualty counts. (RELATED: Taliban Video Points To Flaw At The Heart Of US Strategy For Afghanistan)

There is also a perception that Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is a member of President Donald Trump’s inner circle — or at least has the president’s ear on military matters. In his meetings in Kabul, Prince was frequently introduced as an adviser to Trump, TheNYT reported.

Prince’s lobbying comes at critical time for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is bidding for another term in presidential elections in April. Ghani is under fire from Afghan officials both inside and outside his administration who say he is unable to reverse the deteriorating security situation in the country.

Because many of Prince’s contacts in Afghanistan wish to see Ghani ousted, the president’s advisers view discussions about war privatization as a political threat ahead of the elections. Ghani denounced the idea of allowing private forces to run the war in a speech Monday, though he did not mention Prince by name.

“Foreign mercenaries will never be allowed in this country,” he said, according to TheNYT.

Ghani’s national security council elaborated on his remarks on Thursday, warning of “legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land.”

“Under no circumstances will the Afghan government and people allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business,” the council said in a statement, according to TOLO News. “In no manner does the government of Afghanistan condone this destructive and divisive debate. As a sovereign nation, we will consider all legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land.”

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