In the midst of stirring up a race war, President Trump is on the verge of deciding on a new strategy for Afghanistan — and one of the options he's considering is flat-out nuts.
The president is considering sending an army of thousands of private mercenaries to Afghanistan to "fix" our approach to that country. This dangerous idea is being pushed by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a U.S. contracting firm whose private security hirelings famously shot up civilians in Baghdad.
The idea appalls Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, but was promoted by Trump's strategic adviser Steve Bannon. Even though Bannon was just fired, Prince clearly has the president's attention (not to mention that his sister Betsy DeVos is Trump's education secretary).
If Mattis and McMaster can't block Prince's crazy proposal, they should resign.
Anyone who spent time in Baghdad in the late 2000s can recall the notorious behavior of Blackwater and other security contractors, who operated outside U.S. military rules.
I'll never forget the day my Iraqi driver arrived breathless at my hotel and related how a convoy of U.S. security contractors had become enraged when a row of Iraqi civilian cars failed to stop quickly enough for their large vehicles to execute a swift U-turn. So, as they turned, the angry contractors fired and killed the driver of the first Iraqi car. My driver, in the second car, jumped out and extricated a screaming toddler from the passenger seat beside her dead father, and held her until the police arrived.
Every correspondent who worked in Baghdad can tell similar stories. Most famously, impatient Blackwater contractors killed or injured at least 31 civilians in 2007 when they fired a barrage of machine-gun fire point blank into civilian cars stuck in a traffic jam around Baghdad's Nisour Square. (A U.S. federal appeals court just threw out lengthy prison sentences against three of the shooters, largely because of an inept prosecution.)
"It's not any secret Blackwater didn't enjoy a good reputation among Iraqis or U.S. troops," says the New America Foundation's Douglas Ollivant, who served as a military strategist in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Nisour Square tragedy was supposed to force a reconsideration of U.S. reliance on private security contractors in war zones. Have we forgotten that lesson so soon?
Hiring contractors for specific missions — such as protecting U.S. diplomats overseas, training foreign troops, or even working with the CIA on clandestine counterterror operations — is one thing. But what Prince is proposing is something far more grandiose.
Along with Stephen Feinberg, the owner of the huge military contractor DynCorp International, he wants the U.S. government to finance a hired army that would set its own rules and operate independently of the Pentagon. "This is not the same as counterterrorism contractors," says Ollivant. "This is something entirely different. Having contractors in your supply chain is one thing. Having them as a primary force is something else altogether."
And hiring them as a mercenary army — wholly apart from the Pentagon — violates everything America stands for. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, titled "The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan," Prince proposed that Trump should appoint a "viceroy" to head this hired army, bestowing on him the authority of a Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who ruled post-WWII Japan with the power of a virtual emperor. Presumably Prince wants to be that viceroy.
Never mind that MacArthur was a U.S. army officer, whose men were constrained by military rules. Never mind that he was ruling an enemy country defeated in war, not a sovereign nation that is an ally. And never mind that MacArthur was ultimately fired by Harry Truman for insubordination.
But Prince's pipe dream gets more bizarre. In the Journal piece, he suggested as his model Britain's East India Company, whose private army plundered the resources of the Indian subcontinent from the 17th to 19th centuries on behalf of the British crown.
Never mind that the company went bankrupt in the 1700s and the British government took over control of India in the late 1800s. The fact that the amoral Prince thinks he can resurrect British colonial history is surreal.
Yet Trump has expressed frustration that America hasn't been able to take advantage of Afghanistan's unexplored mineral riches, just as he complained that Washington should have "taken the oil" in Iraq. He may be dreaming that Washington can seize those riches to pay for Viceroy Prince's new colonial venture — an idea in sync with his mercantilist approach to dealing with countries overseas.
To be fair, there are no good options in Afghanistan, after 16 years of an American presence. To abandon that country guarantees a return of al-Qaeda — and a new base for ISIS. But the country can't be stabilized unless Pakistan is pressured to stop providing a safe haven for the Taliban.
That messy reality doesn't provide the easy answers that the president is seeking. But Prince's grandiose scheme undermines the coherence of the U.S. military — and the role of the commander-in-chief. It would never be accepted by a sovereign Afghan government.