The report that US President Donald Trump is showing renewed interest in a proposal by Blackwater founder Erik Prince to privatize the failing war in Afghanistan, ought to bring everybody up short.
The 49-year-old Prince is the brother of Betsy DeVos, who has made a depressing hash as Secretary of Education in the Trump administration. A former US Navy SEAL, he is a close associate of the Trump family, close enough that during the 2016 presidential transition period, he attended a meeting with a Russian banker in the Seychelle Islands that has become the subject of scrutiny for investigators looking into Russian interference with the election. He also has been named as a participant in a CIA operation to kill terrorists without the niceties of the judicial process.
Prince created Blackwater Worldwide in 1997 to provide security and other services for government and other operations. It subsequently grew into a private army made up largely of graduates from the US Army’s Special forces or the SEALS as well as thuggish adventurers. It was named for a swamp in North Carolina where his private army trained.
War on War
Many believe Prince should have been charged with murder for his operations in Iraq, which wrecked Blackwater’s reputation. Blackwater operatives were accused of indiscriminately opening fire in a public Iraqi square, killing 17 civilians for no apparent reason and seriously injuring 20 more. Three Blackwater employees were charged in a US court with manslaughter and another of murder. The company has since been sold to investors and changed its name to the anodyne Academi.
Prince, in the NBC interview and in other venues has given indications he would like replace allied troops in Afghanistan with his own private army, paid mercenaries who mostly are expected to be Special Forces or SEAL graduates.
As Asia Sentinel’s Salman Rafi Sheikh indicates in a companion article, Afghanistan is near a tipping point. Anti-government forces including the Taliban and Islamic State have nearly cut the country in half and Afghan forces are under enormous pressure.
Biting Off More Than he Can Chew
But any indication that Prince’s forces are going to make dramatic progress where 100,000 US troops and thousands more from the International Security Assistance Force couldn’t is not only wishful thinking but frightening. If past practice is any guide, his plan is probably going to be an approximation of Vietnam’s Phoenix Program, designed, coordinated and executed by the CIA, the Special Forces and others, which ran between 1965 and 1972 and which "neutralized" more than 80,000 suspected Vietcong operatives, of whom 26,000 to 40,000 were assassinated. It was one of the most disgraceful aspects of the entire Vietnam experience. It also didn't work.
Prince told NBC News he hasn't spoken directly to Trump about the plan, but said he plans to launch an aggressive media "air campaign" in coming days to try to get the president to embrace it.
In recent briefings with Trump, the president's advisers have emphasized the possibility of a political resolution with the Taliban and downplayed the lack of military advances, officials told NBC. But as Salman Rafi Sheikh writes, the chances of a political solution are slim and none.
Handing the country over to Eric Prince and the successor to Blackwater, which was dissolved amid allegations of war crimes, risks a disaster of enormous proportions. A 2007 Brookings Institution study by Peter W. Singer of Blackwater’s activities in Iraq tells a devastating story of brutality and murder by mercenaries gone wild.
Blackwater, according to Singer’s account, “earned a special reputation among Iraqis. Much of this stems from the highly visible role it…played in escorting US. officials. Iraqi government officials claim that there have been at least seven incidents of civilian harm in which the company has been involved. “
The most notable, according to Singer’s report, was on Christmas Eve 2006, when a Blackwater employee allegedly got drunk while inside the Green Zone in Baghdad and got in an argument with a guard of the Iraqi vice president. He then shot the Iraqi dead. The employee was quickly flown out of the country. He was never charged. In May 2007, Blackwater contractors reportedly shot two more Iraqi civilians, including an Interior Ministry employee, which led to an armed standoff between the firm and Iraqi police.
Matthew Degn, a senior American civilian advisor to the Interior Ministry’s intelligence directorate, described Blackwater as giving rise to “a powder keg” of anger. Singer quoted Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, deputy commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, who found 12 shootings by contractors that resulted in at least six Iraqi civilian deaths and three more wounded.
“These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff,” Horst said. “There’s no authority over them, so you can’t come down on them hard when they escalate force. They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath.”
Perceptions of a contractor force run amok “helped to undermine the very justification for the US effort in Iraq,” Singer wrote. “As an Interior Ministry official said of the Blackwater contractors hired by the US, ‘They consider Iraqis like animals, although actually I think they may have more respect for animals. We have seen what they do in the streets. When they’re not shooting, they’re throwing water bottles at people and calling them names. If you are terrifying a child or an elderly woman, or you are killing an innocent civilian who is riding in his car, isn’t that terrorism?”
Blackwater’s depredations in Iraq, Singer wrote, have reverberated across the Muslim world. That is not going to help Erik Prince if Donald Trump decides to turn the Afghan war over to him. A private army, outside the purview of government, is as likely to go berserk in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. There are rules to warfare, believe it or not. Erik Prince and his private army are extremely unlikely to follow them.