President Trump is frustrated about the lack of progress in Afghanistan and seems to be skeptical about his military advisors' proposal for the deployment of up to another 4,000 U.S. trainers, advisors and counter-terrorism forces to join the 8,500 now stationed there.
"We've been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we've been there for 17 years, how it's going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas," he told reporters recently.
We understand the president's exasperation. Despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars and the loss of 2,400 American lives, the political and security situation in that country remains precarious, civilian casualties are increasing and corruption remains rife. In recent months the Taliban has gained ground.
So Trump is right to insist on a searching review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, one that considers diplomatic as well as military options. But he should say no to one proposal being floated, reportedly with the encouragement of some of his advisors: the replacement of U.S. forces by private security contractors.
According to the New York Times, White House advisors Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, asked two businessmen who profited from military contracting to come up with alternatives to sending additional troops to Afghanistan. The newspaper said that Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, the owner of the military contractor DynCorp International, recommended that the government rely on private contractors instead of U.S. troops.
That's an awful proposal. Can Bannon and Kushner have already forgotten the history of Blackwater? The company became notorious after a group of its employees were convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007 in Baghdad.
Undaunted, Prince (who is the brother of Trump's Education secretary, Betsy DeVos) has now written a column in the Wall Street Journal offering several ideas for changes in U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Some of them, such as the consolidation of all authority in one official, might be worth consideration, although it is disturbing that Prince sees such a person as a "viceroy" in the mold of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the occupation of Japan after World War II. Even more disturbingly, Prince also suggested that the U.S. rely on "private military units" modeled after the armies used by the East India Company — the for-profit enterprise that with its own private army effectively ruled India during British colonial era. These units, he explained, "were locally recruited and trained, supported and led by contracted European professional soldiers."
If Prince is suggesting that duties now performed by U.S. military officers should be entrusted to contractors — mercenaries, in effect — it's a horrible idea. Although private contractors have played a role in every war, military functions — even if they don't technically qualify as combat duty — should be handled by military personnel who are accountable in the chain of command.
Apparently Secretary of Defense James Mattis agrees. According to the New York Times, Mattis refused to include the private-contractor idea in the Afghanistan policy review he is leading along with National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean the idea won't come to Trump's attention via Bannon, Kushner or other close advisors. A president with a business background might be easily beguiled by the idea of contracting out a war. But it is a terrible idea.
What ideas should the president consider?
Trump and his advisors should certainly cross-examine the consensus that a continued modest U.S. military presence is vital to the success of the Afghan government's campaign against the Taliban. (No one is suggesting that the U.S. return to the troop levels it maintained at the height of its combat role in Afghanistan, when 100,000 Americans were deployed.) Even if that's the case, some experts have argued for better integration of U.S. advisors with Afghan military units and changes in the military command structure.
And the administration's review should extend beyond military strategy. Diplomacy also must be part of the equation. That includes efforts to pressure Pakistan to do more to combat terrorist groups that use its territory to launch attacks on U.S. and allied troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also means being open to the possibility of negotiations between the government of Afghanistan and elements of the Taliban that would be willing to accept a constitution that secured basic rights. Indeed, one argument for military intervention in Afghanistan always has been that it places pressure on the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
These are the issues Trump needs to consider in taking a new look at our involvement in Afghanistan. But he should forget about private armies.