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Privatising the Afghan war is dangerous – and more likely than you think

Arif Rafiq

The longest war in US history could be about to get worse as private companies compete to take up more combat duties.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince has resurfaced once again in Afghanistan.

In September, the private military contractor met with the Afghan intelligence chief and interior minister and a broad spectrum of power brokers—from “lowly militia commanders” to “several potential presidential candidates,” according to the New York Times—to pitch his plan for privatising the American war in Afghanistan.

The Prince plan for Afghanistan calls for replacing US and NATO-country military personnel with 3,600 private contractors, who would be embedded with 100 Afghan security “units” for two to four years. These contractors would provide a full range of services, from air support to logistics and medical assistance.

According to Prince, the plan ultimately shifts the burden of fighting on the American side from active-duty US military personnel to private contractors—and at much lower financial and political costs. Prince, who has been trying to sell his plan for more than a year, now says he could turn the war around in six months.

There is little institutional support for Prince’s plan, especially in the US Department of State and the Pentagon. But Prince has been persistent in evangelising for his plan, going on a media blitz and, most recently, hiring a lobbyist.

Prince is persistent because he knows that US President Donald Trump hates the options for Afghanistan being put on his table and remains a wild card. He’s exploiting Trump’s twin beliefs that the Afghanistan war is unwinnable, and that the US should somehow profit from Afghanistan’s vast mineral deposits—valued at one point at $1 trillion.

While it is presently unlikely that Prince’s plan will be realised, given Trump’s unpredictability and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, it is important to consider a scenario that would make the Prince plan a possible option for the Trump administration.

That scenario could come sooner rather than later as Trump is reportedly considering the announcement of a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. The announcement, according to Newsweek, could be made this autumn and a withdrawal might begin as early as 2020.

Last year, Trump reluctantly green-lighted the so-called South Asia Strategy, which — at least, on paper — did away with timetables, modestly increased troop levels in Afghanistan and ramped up the use of air power against the Taliban and Daesh.

But the strategy quickly hit a dead end. Violence and the drug trade in Afghanistan continue to break record highs.

The Taliban continues to gain territory, and Afghan security forces are now retreating as their casualties climb.

In less than a year’s time, Trump has effectively abandoned the South Asia Strategy, and his administration has pivoted toward talks.

With the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy for reconciliation in Afghanistan, the administration has signalled its seriousness about the dialogue process.

However, attempts at reviving the US-Taliban dialogue come at a point of political transition in Afghanistan. The country just held parliamentary elections, and presidential elections are a mere six months away.

There is a high probability that the presidential polls will be fraught with the fraud and mismanagement witnessed in every previous election in Afghanistan. A political impasse of some sort is likely. And this is when the Prince plan could re-enter the discussion.

Let’s fast forward to May 2019 and imagine a scenario in which political and security conditions continue to deteriorate in Afghanistan. The Taliban consolidates control over southern Afghanistan as the country is in a political crisis, with allegations of fraud in the April presidential elections.

US talks with the Taliban hit a dead end too, as there is a power vacuum in Kabul. Trump, completely fed up with a war he never wanted to fight, announces in a tweet that the US will begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It would be a decision few in his government would support, but they would have no choice but to accept and work to implement.

The US national security bureaucracy would then be forced to address the challenge of confronting terrorism threats in Afghanistan, with no military footprint, and Afghanistan’s political system and security forces fracture. The war would then have to be fought exclusively in the grey zone—by intelligence operatives, special operations forces, contractors, and local militias.

Erik Prince could enter here, leveraging his history with the US intelligence community and relations with a broad set of Afghan powerbrokers and local strongmen.

Prince has already been working these channels, meeting with Ghani’s rivals, including northern strongman Atta Noor, whom Prince met in Dubai last December.

Prince also met with Ghani’s interior minister and intelligence chief, showing the powerlessness of the Afghan president, who condemned the Blackwater founder’s privatised war plan.

Not only was Prince given a visa to visit Afghanistan, but he also received a soft in-studio interview on TOLO News, Afghanistan’s largest private news channel — indicating how deep his ties into the Afghan power elite go.

Trump’s plan A for Afghanistan was his “South Asia Strategy.” In less than a year, he pivoted toward direct talks with the Taliban, which became his plan B. Should the talks and elections fail, Prince could factor in a backup plan not just for the Trump administration, but also various Afghan power brokers who were wedded together by the US and the international community.

It’s precisely in this type of a murky scenario that someone like Prince seeks and thrives upon.

Prince has rebranded himself as a full-spectrum provider of services in high-risk, frontier energy and mining markets—hence his company’s name: Frontier Services Group (FSG).

He has positioned himself as a problem solver—someone who can lower the risk surrounding extractive industries in markets plagued by insecurity and misgovernance, providing logistics and security services with a local government or foreign investor would not be able to and even offering insurance services.

But Prince’s business practices deepen the institutional and societal weaknesses in these markets. In civil war-plagued South Sudan, for example, he attempted to use secret front companies to build a private air force for the country’s ruler—without informing American executives at FSG, which already had a logistics and security contract with the government.

What Prince is ultimately angling for in these markets—including Afghanistan—is equity in an energy or mining concession, but his business model works by virtue of being a security provider.

In Afghanistan, we could see Prince come to an understanding with Noor and other regional power brokers in Afghanistan, enabling his mercenary forces to operate in Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif, ostensibly to target militants affiliated with Al Qaeda and Daesh.

Prince could operate in tacit cooperation with the US intelligence community. Perhaps a non-Western government with an eye on Afghanistan’s mineral resources could pay the bills.

Prince, bearing none of the financial risks, could then try to muster together an agreement between foreign investors and Afghan warlords, and get a piece of a mining concession for rare minerals.

Even if the mining concession never materialises, Prince makes a killing.

Preventing such an unlikely scenario from becoming realistic would require progress on two fronts: the US-Taliban talks and the political transition in Afghanistan, which will be capped by presidential elections in April.

The stakes for the Afghan people and regional states are quite high, for a Prince of darkness lurks.

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