Why Private Contractors Can’t Replace Ongoing Military Presence in Afghanistan

Intelligence

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of security contracting giant Blackwater, needs to realize that his own particular model of hammer is not always—or even ever—the best solution.

Prince published an opinion piece on RealClearPolitics Wednesday, calling for President Donald Trump to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan in favor of using private contractors to train and support the Afghan Army. One scarcely knows where to begin.

Prince begins with some basic truths, such as the observation that “Like Vietnam, Afghanistan was never about troop levels; it is about how troops are utilized.” He also correctly observes that “In Afghanistan, fighting—like politics—is local. Battlefield memory matters.” He laments the fact that U.S. troops rotate out of the country before they have a chance to act decisively on the local knowledge they gain, and they fail to pass that information adequately to the relieving unit.

But his proposal to embed contractors instead of soldiers with Afghan National Army units  is just wrong-headed, and probably illegal.

A mercenary by any other name…

“This would not be a private army, ” Prince writes, “but a long-term contracted skeletal support structure for the Afghan security forces, in the exact tradition as the professionals that built the American army in 1776.” I’m not sure where to even go with that.

The core counterargument to Prince’s proposal is the simple fact that the state has a monopoly on the offensive use of violence. Individuals, even groups, have a right to self-defense. But only the police have the authority to go looking for criminals and to arrest them. We have a word for private citizens who try to assume the duties reserved for the police: vigilantes.

Similarly, only state armies have the legitimate authority to go looking for an enemy and engage that enemy with lethal force. Certainly, contractors are used for base camp perimeter security, and for personnel protection and convoy security.  We also have a word for private contractors who go beyond those roles and instead go out looking for the enemy, rather than reacting to enemy actions: mercenaries.

As someone who has worked in the private security service provider world before, I am quick to defend those contractors against the “merc” label. But Prince’s latest idea, while trying to sound reasonable, is really just the old Executive Outcomes model with an American face on it. Executive Outcomes, longtime readers of Daily Intel may recall, was a South African private security contractor that was supposedly training armies in Sierra Leone and Angola, when in fact they were leading them into battle in violation of the United Nations’ International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.

When a contractor is no longer a contractor

Prince’s “mentor” idea for the Afghan Army conveniently ignores the fact that a central part of a trainer’s job when executing the “foreign internal defense” mission is to fight alongside those he is training when necessary. There’s just no way around the interpretation that were a private contractor to accompany his Afghan clients into battle, he would be crossing a legal line like the employees of Russian firm CHVK Wagner did in Syria earlier this year.

Contractors have successfully trained foreign armies before. With the blessing of the U.S. government, Military Professional Resources Inc., MPRI (later acquired by L-3) trained the Croatian Army prior to 1995’s decisive “Operation Storm,” and later the Bosnian Army under the U.S.-sponsored Train and Equip program. But in neither case did MPRI employees go into battle with the units they trained.

In Afghanistan, the trainers we embed with local units regularly fight alongside those units, often personally leading them into battle. A friend of mine earned a Bronze Star for Valor in Afghanistan from his time leading an Military Transition Team in Afghanistan.. Were Prince’s “mentors” to do the same, they’d no longer be contractors, they’d be mercenaries. It’s a word Prince avoids using, and one that people often apply incorrectly; in this case, it would be the right word to use, though.

What worries me, though, is that he might just convince Trump that his idea is the best path forward, leaving Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelley in the awkward position of having to put their collective foot down.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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