The tab to date: over $840 billion for military operations, $126 billion for reconstruction, probably another $1 trillion for veterans’ health care, over 2,400 dead, and over 20,000 wounded.
In August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis kiboshed Erik Prince’s plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan which Prince called “an expensive disaster for America.” But with Mattis’s tenure in doubt, we may not have seen the last of the Prince plan, which is forthrightly titled “An Exit Strategy for Afghanistan.”
U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. and are still there seventeen years later. The tab to date: over $840 billion for military operations, $126 billion for reconstruction, probably another $1 trillion for veterans’ health care, over 2,400 dead, and over 20,000 wounded. The annual cost is $50 billion, more than the defense budget of the U.K.
Despite the cost in dollars and lives, there hasn’t been much progress. The Afghan central government controls or influences under 60% of the country and “opium production in Afghanistan increased by 87 percent to a record level of 9,000 metric tons in 2017 compared with 2016 levels” according to the latest report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
President Trump was channeling many Americans when he asked his national security advisor, “What the f**k are we doing there?” Though Trump didn’t promise to leave Afghanistan during the campaign, his advisors, some of them mired in the conflict for the past two decades, convinced him to authorize an additional 4000 troops for training and counter-terrorism missions.
In parallel with the troop increase, the administration slashed assistance to Pakistan, the state sponsor of the Taliban. This won’t change Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan, but at least America won’t be insulting itself by funding its enemy.
U.S. diplomats have started direct talks with the Taliban while reiterating that the end to the conflict will only come through an intra-Afghan settlement. At the same time, Uzbekistan’s diplomats hosted talks with Taliban representatives as part of Tashkent’s initiative to include Afghanistan in Central Asia, and to give the Taliban an interlocuter other than Pakistan.
Trump’s pro-intervention advisors probably want to block him from deciding to withdraw and upsetting the Afghan presidential election on 20 April 2019 (parliamentary elections are on 20 October 2018), and to give the new NATO commander time to make progress (known as “calendar creep”). But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s opponents in the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan may hand Trump an opportunity to break out.
The Coalition, an assembly of the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara, with Pashtun leadership, will be a serious challenge to Ghani in the April 2019 election, but it may try to invalidate the October 2018 parliamentary election and call a traditional Loya Jirga to unseat Ghani. If the Coalition uses the extra-legal Loya Jirga to oust Ghani, Trump has the justification he needs to go to the American people with his decision to quit and cut America’s considerable losses, especially if he is bolstered by a pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate.
So now comes Erik Prince, the man everyone loves to hate, with a plan to privatize and streamline the tasks now being performed by about 14,000 American and 8,000 NATO troops and over 26,000 contractors. Prince earned his notoriety in Iraq when his security company, Blackwater Worldwide, was involved in a shooting incident at Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left seventeen innocent bystanders dead and caused Blackwater’s expulsion from the country. Prince, in his defense, claims he never lost a client which, if you were protected by his teams, is probably the most significant criterion.
Prince proposes to replace the NATO forces and their support contractors with 6,000 contractors, all special operations veterans, and 2,000 U.S. special operations troops, who will provide QA for the contractors, and unilateral direct-action capability. The mentor-contractors will stay with their assigned Afghan National Army battalions for a minimum of three years. 2,000 contractors will operate aircraft for medical evacuation and close air support and will staff two western-style combat surgical hospitals that would also treat wounded Afghan soldiers. The contractors and U.S. forces would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Afghan law, and contractor medical care would be provided by Defense Base Act insurance, which is current practice for contingency contracts.
The plan includes a governance support unit that will provide logistics to the force and, very importantly, prevent payment to Afghanistan’s “ghost soldiers” and the skimming of soldiers’ pay by their commanders, perennial corruption problems in Afghanistan’s military.
The most remarked upon feature of the plan was Prince’s suggestion that the effort be led by a “viceroy” who would answer directly to the President and command all military, diplomatic, and intelligence assets in Afghanistan. This is known as “unity of command,” and has never existed in America’s long project in Afghanistan. That person would need experience with the military and intelligence agencies, but no candidate may satisfy all the bureaucracies so the President (and Congress) will have to back it up by giving the viceroy hire-and-fire authority and control of the budgets.
Another noted feature was contracting the effort under Title 50 of the United States Code which is the authority for the security services, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, but also for most military operations. This may expedite the contract award process, but particular attention will be required for “contract administration,” that is, ensuring the vendor completes the terms and conditions of the contract. As the military, the diplomats, and the reconstruction officials have been unable to define “success” in Afghanistan, the contracting officer and the vendor may be left to their own devices.
And using contractors has one big benefit for a government: their deaths are pretty much off the radar, especially if they aren’t American (and a share of Prince’s force will be non-American). The media reports the death of every deployed military member, even if he dies in a vehicle accident on base, but dead contractors go unnoticed. 257 American contractors died in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 but received far less attention than the soldiers they supported.
The opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s trove of rare earth elements was highlighted in Prince’s plan which immediately drew accusations of plunder. Yes, there is wealth to be had: Russian, British, and American geologists have found that Afghanistan has enormous untapped mineral resources, possibly valued at $3 trillion. The minerals are there, but there’s no way to mine them, so they’re effectively worthless. And there’s no way to get them out because the country is violent and corrupt which scares away investors. Outsourcing may be the last chance to recover Afghanistan’s mineral wealth for its people. It will also chip away at China’s control of a significant share of the world’s rare earths.
Moreover, Afghanistan’s government has some concerns the U.S. must address:
Is the plan legal under international law?
Will using foreign contractors encourage local warlords to circumvent the newly-formed democratic institutions in the country?
Who will be accountable for the success or failure of outsourcing a military campaign? How will the government of Afghanistan provide oversight of military operations on its territory?
Will outsourcing be seen as a for-profit corporation taking control of the conflict and selling war as a product, dooming prospects for peace and reconciliation in the country?
The regional powers, China and Russia, and the active neighbors such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, may stop their support to the peace process if they interpret outsourcing as indicative of the waning interest by the U.S.
Criticism of Prince’s plan runs up against the ticking clock that is close to chiming “20 years” so Trump may soon run out of patience and present Kabul (and U.S. officials) with a “take it or leave it” proposal. There’s no voting constituency in the U.S. for continued loitering in Afghanistan and Trump won’t lose any votes in 2020 if he says he gave it his best shot but getting out now is best for America. Secretary Mattis is concerned that outsourcing may make NATO allies jump ship, but how many American lives and dollars should we pay for Latvia’s thirty-seven troops?
Detractors of a new approach may say the sacrifice of our GIs will be dishonored by resorting to “mercenaries,” but the sunk cost of the dollars, dead, and wounded shouldn’t stop us from examining alternatives after 17 years fighting a war we are “not winning” according to Secretary Mattis.
Prince has suggested a “test drive” of his proposal which would see contractor deployments to Nangarhar and Helmand provinces. Nangarhar is an egress route to and from safe havens in Pakistani, and Helmand is the Taliban’s financial center of gravity where one-third of the arable land is used for poppy cultivation. That would give the U.S. some interesting lessons learned whatever the outcome but, given internal resistance in the U.S. government, it will require an impartial evaluator who will also consider Afghan concerns.
Another test drive option was suggested by Gary Anderson, a former reconstruction advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan: “the provision of construction security for the Ring Road in the remote northwestern region.” The Ring Road would like it possible to travel from the western city of Herat, which borders Iran and Turkmenistan, to Mazar e-Sharif in the north of the country and close to Uzbekistan. It would spur economic activity, increase access to education, and allow Kabul to extend its writ to the far north and west of the country, and thus be more consequential to “winning” than killing another bunch of Taliban. It would also mute “plunder” allegations and encourage Afghanistan’s Central Asia neighbors to continue their effort to integrate the country into the region.
Erik Prince’s plan gives the U.S. the opportunity to try a new strategy in Afghanistan instead of spending another year while yet another new NATO commander get acquainted with his job. It may prompt Washington to consider three options: Prince’s original plan, Anderson’s infrastructure-focused plan, or the “decent interval” option, providing mentoring and training to the Afghan army so, if worse comes to worst, the U.S. will be several years removed from a Taliban takeover.