The Afghan War Is No Place to Turn a Profit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The idea of “privatizing” the war in Afghanistan is back. Erik Prince, the founder of the now-defunct security firm Blackwater Worldwide, is making the rounds in a self-described “aggressive media air campaign” to make the case that 6,000 private military contractors can do what 110,000 uniformed soldiers couldn’t. Anonymous White House sources have said President Donald Trump has shown interest.

This would be a terrible mistake. I’m a capitalist at heart, but capitalism has no business in a war zone. Privatizing our fighting forces would ultimately cause any national strategic objectives to be subsumed by profit motive.

How do I know this? Because after serving more than 20 years in the Army, most of that time in Special Forces, I retired and became a private military contractor. I was one of the first soldiers in Afghanistan after 9/11, fought in Iraq, and I’ve seen it from both sides. Trust me, the U.S. doesn’t want a company looking to turn a profit running national policy.

One of Prince’s favorite talking pointsis that small teams of Special Forces and CIA operatives overthrew the Taliban in lightning speed in 2001, then the conventional forces took over, and 17 years later we’re at a stalemate. Thus, the argument goes, it’s time to go back to an unconventional campaign.

This makes a great sound bite, but is a completely flawed comparison. At the outset of the war, we were fighting an established government with a standing army; now, we are defending an established government while training a standing army. When we entered, we, along with the Northern Alliance, were the insurgents; now, we’re fighting a Taliban insurgency. The strategies required for the two tasks are diametrically opposite.

Much of the debate over bringing in contractors has focused on legality, chains of command and integration of private forces with uniformed ones — and rightly so. But the idea falls short well before we even get to those nitty-gritty details.

Taking a close look Blackwater's role in Iraq shows why: profit over policy. While the company was initially formed with vetted Navy SEALs, over time the need to ramp up operations led to the firm hiring just about anyone who’d held a gun in a war zone. The result: the Nisour Square massacre, in which Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

This debacle not only set back the nationwide counterinsurgency mission America’s uniformed soldiers were attempting to accomplish, it also led to Prince changing the name of his firm to Academi to get out from under the cloud.

I have worked with half a dozen private military companies, and I’m not saying that they are all evil. Far from it. Some have our nation’s interests at heart, and I continue to work with them. But eventually, the bigger they get, the more the profit motive takes hold. Taking over an entire country’s military strategy for the U.S. government? About the worst I can think of.

For instance, Triple Canopy — a company christened for the nickname of the three tabs worn by elite Army troops: Special Forces, Ranger and Airborne — initially only hired the best of the best and paid very well for the talent. But as the war in Iraq ground on and the company expanded rapidly, things got lax. Last year, based on a former employee’s lawsuit claiming fraud, it paid the Defense Department a $2.6 million settlement for hiring Ugandan soldiers who had never qualified on a rifle to guard al-Asad airbase.

Prince says his plan is to embed only “professional ex-Special Operations soldiers” with the Afghanistan army, and that they would operate in-country for years, solidifying their knowledge of the terrain and friendly and enemy forces. Doing so would halt the constant rotation and the inevitable re-learning that happens with the U.S. military’s current tours.

This is an admirable goal, and makes sense on the surface. But where will these ex-Special Forces troops be found? Who is qualified to carry out the mission? Me, and people like me. People who have been at war for over a decade. People with families they haven’t seen, birthdays missed, anniversaries lost, and holidays spent eating cold spaghetti out of a bag in the field while dodging bullets.

Does Prince really believe there are 6,000 Lawrence of Arabia types willing to spend a decade embedded in an Afghan army unit with no rotation — after most have spent nearly two decades embedded in Afghan and Iraqi army units already? Unlikely. But he has contacts all over the world to provide manpower, perhaps the equivalent of those hapless Ugandans. 

Hiring private contractors in a war zone makes sense when there is a specific and limited goal, such as building wells, electrical grids and schools. But it makes no sense on such an overarching scale: A profit motive runs contradictory to the national strategic goals of the mission in Afghanistan. Why would the company that wins this billion-dollar contract ever want the war to end? In so doing, it would put itself out of business. At the worst, the profit motive could lead the company to subconsciously thwart any effort at reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government.  Fortunately, the Pentagon brass understands this: On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis restated his opposition to the idea.

Afghanistan is an intractable problem, no doubt, and we have slogged our way through 17 years of war with little to show for it. But turning it over to a private army won’t accomplish any of our strategic aims, unless the goal is simply to leave and let Erik Prince get rich.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brad Taylor is the author of the Pike Logan series of military thrillers including the forthcoming "Daughter of War." He served for more than 20 years as a U.S. Army officer in various special operations positions.

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