The founder of the U.S.-based Blackwater security firm has been meeting with powerbrokers in Afghanistan to rally support for his plan to privatize the Afghan war.
Erik Prince heads the private military company known as Academi, renamed in 2011.
According to a report in The New York Times, Prince sent a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in 2017 to secure a meeting, but Ghani refused to meet with him.
Prince, based in United Arab Emirates, has reportedly been holding regular meetings with influential Afghans, including some who have an eye on Ghani’s job as he faces reelection in less than a year.
Prince told the Times he is not trying to interfere in Afghan politics.
“The Afghan people will have an election, and they will make the choices that they are going to live with," Prince said. But I will talk to whichever party in Afghanistan that wants to think about a different way to this that actually stops the bleeding."
Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
In 2007, Blackwater was implicated in the killings of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards. The first-degree murder conviction of one of the guards was overturned last year. The U.S. appeals court also ordered that three other defendants be re-sentenced.
Last week, Ghani rejected the effort to privatize the war.
“Flawed and impractical proposals are being touted around, including privatizing the war and exploiting the Afghan natural resources. Afghans will not allow the exploitation of their natural resources by anyone,” an angry Ghani told a gathering in northern Balkh province last week.
Ghani’s remarks were followed by an official statement by the Afghan National Security Council on Twitter.
Prince would replace thousands of U.S. troops with fewer private contractors, who would be backed by a 90-plane private air force. The war would then be coordinated by what Prince calls a "viceroy."
In interviews with various news outlets, Prince used the example of the East India Company that ruled the Indian sub-continent in the 19th century.
Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington, D.C.-based National Defense University, called the East India Company analogy a “misuse of history.”
“Prince frequently cites the British East India Company as a successful case study of privatization of state building, but it’s a terrific misuse of history,” Dearing said. “The East India Company had no intent on building a nation state. Instead, they pillaged the Mughal Empire and enriched their shareholders, only to be bailed out and nationalized after terrorizing the population.”
Talks with the Taliban
Dearing said Prince’s plan also fails to address "how mercenaries advance reconciliation efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban."
“U.S. and Afghan militaries can win battles, but the long-term solution is a political one. And privatizing the war takes us no closer to that end goal,” he said.
Tamim Asey, a former deputy minister of defense in Ghani’s government, said Private Security Companies (PSCs) are "notorious" in Afghanistan and could face a national revolt if given a broader chance to operate there.
"Mr. Prince's plan for privatizing the Afghan war is politically and militarily unfeasible and goes against the social and political fabric of the Afghan society," he said. "Private mercenaries have never won a war in this scale and complexity.”
Asey said the only way to fight terrorism in Afghanistan is through strengthening the Afghan security forces.
Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat in the U.S., echoes Asey's belief, and maintains that privatization of the war would also jeopardize the security agreements between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
“Privatization will bring under question the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement] and strategic partnership between the two countries — political solution, more pressure on Pakistan and Taliban, equipping and strengthening ANDSF plus the air force, which will give leverage to the Afghan government, should be prioritized,” Katawazai said.
Corporate vs. national interest
Rebecca Zimmerman of the Rand Corporation argues that contractors and the military operate very differently for different interests.
“Contractors are actually working on the basis of specified tasks, and they judge success by completely those tasks, not by actually winning a war,” she said. “It’s hard to see how you’d be able to transfer the context of the contractors that he’s talking about into anything that could viably pursue national interests, as opposed to corporate interests.”
William Gallo contributed to this story.