• Saleem Qamar Butt

Perils of privatising the war in Afghanistan

The US military intervention in Afghanistan is currently in its seventeenth year. Together with the Iraq war and an array of “War on Terror” operations spanning the globe, such military engagement has cost the United States dearly in both blood and treasure.

By one estimate, the United States’ post-9/11 military campaigns have cost the country all of $5.6 trillion. POTUS Trump is understandably perturbed at the way war in Afghanistan has gone for America in spite of the resources committed and loss of recorded 2,400 American soldiers’ lives.


Afghanistan remains politically unbalanced, without viable state infrastructures to run sans external help. He is understandably looking for alternate military and diplomatic options- should out sourcing US military presence to contractors be one of them?

As per New York Times Jared Kushner and Bannon were in the mix for formulating new Afghan policy. Kushner sought the advice of Stephen A. Feinberg the owner of DynCorp International military contractors and Erik D. Prince who founded the security firm Black water Worldwide. Both suggested the option of replacing the US military with private security contractors.


Recently there has been whispering about privatizing that war. Many analysts did not consider it a good idea when Erik Prince introduced it in May 2017, or when he and Stephen A. Feinberg Reportedly met with President Trump and his top advisers in July of that year. Laura Dickinson pointed out the legal problems, which could leave the United States on the hook if things went wrong. Those familiar with private forces say it is unlikely to do the magic.


And critics submit that privatization seems to line up more clearly with making Erik Prince rich and satisfying business objectives than enhancing national security. Erik Prince reportedly planned to launch a deliberate battle on media to get the president to embrace the idea.


Laura Dickinson pointed out the legal problems, which could leave the United States on the hook if things went wrong. Those familiar with private forces say it is unlikely to do the magic. And critics submit that privatization seems to line up more clearly with making Erik Prince rich and satisfying business objectives than enhancing national security. Erik Prince reportedly planned to launch a deliberate battle on media to get the president to embrace the idea. He outlined his plan in an interview with the Military Times on September 5 and reportedly sees an opportunity now that John Bolton has replaced McMaster as national security adviser and progress on the ground in Afghanistan has been sparse.

He outlined his plan in an interview with the Military Times on September 5 and reportedly sees an opportunity now that John Bolton has replaced McMaster as national security adviser and progress on the ground in Afghanistan has been sparse.

Privatizing the US effort in Afghanistan seems likely to complicate what is already a weighed down relationship with the Afghan government. However, use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) is not new to Afghanistan.


With the exception of 2010, contractors had outnumbered US forces during the Afghan war, sometimes making up nearly half of the forces there. The latest Department of Defense (DoD) census report (July 2018) showed nearly 27,000 contractors, which included approximately 10,000 US citizens and 10,000 third country nationals, and the remainder Afghans — accompanying 14,000 troops.


Nevertheless, the current idea of privatization of war in Afghanistan propounded by Erik Prince and Fienberg is laden with many perils, some of which have already been experienced in Afghanistan and in other war zones where PMSCs had been employed by DoD. Early in the war, PMSCs caused serious problems for counterinsurgency efforts. Especially problematic were armed private security contractors, who did not coordinate with U.S. troops and often used heavy-handed tactics to protect their clients, at a cost to overall security efforts. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction documented at length from its inception in 2008, corruption has also been rampant. Since most of the NGOs, foreign companies, and other government mission also use private contractors, coordinating PMSCs and US and NATO forces has been particularly difficult. The replacement of military by private contractors is considered bad idea on many counts.


First, it can create to financial and operational headaches. Trump will be well reminded of the fact that DynCorp International filed for alleged over-billing for a four year period in Iraq where it was in contract with the US State Department for training the Iraqi police. Four Black water guards for firing into Baghdad’s Nisour Square and killing unarmed civilians on September 16, 2007 were awarded sentences (giving imprisonment to one and 30 years each to others).


“The friendly governments installed in Kabul and Afghanistan insisted on Black water and its ilk leaving their countries,” (Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2017). It is the right of citizens of a nation to know what the government is doing in another country on taxpayers’ money. Outsourcing makes transparency of costs and operations questionable.

“By the 20th century, only those places with legacies of imperialism or temporary shortages of manpower deployed soldiers-for-hire, and the list of such exceptions (for example, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Angola, and Nigeria) matches a list of global trouble spots.” (Outsourcing Power: How Privatizing Military Efforts Challenges Accountability, Professionalism, and Democracy: Martha Minow).


Although, some oversight programs were put in place since then, yet, lingering uncertainties attached with organizational restructuring would likely erode the U.S. government’s ability to control the very private forces Prince is proposing in Afghanistan. And any bureaucratic changes that impede the work of the Program Support Office are likely to intensify the legal concerns attached to any plan to privatize US efforts in Afghanistan, as well as concerns about effectiveness and abuse.


Although, some oversight programs were put in place since then, yet, lingering uncertainties attached with organisational restructuring would likely erode the US government’s ability to control the very private forces Prince is proposing in Afghanistan. And any bureaucratic changes that impede the work of the Program Support Office are likely to intensify the legal concerns attached to any plan to privatize US efforts in Afghanistan, as well as concerns about effectiveness and abuse.

US experience has shown that private contractors contribute to military effectiveness only when they are carefully managed . Last year, even with the improved oversight and management of contractor behavior in place, Erik Prince’s plan seemed a bad idea to many security experts; without this oversight, it could be a disaster.


Second, it can cause diplomatic headaches. The main interest of hiring these mercenaries is in conflict with that of those hiring. These firms are not cognizant of the laws of war. The world today is one that is legally accountable – any misstep caused by security contractors (history proves there were numerous with disastrous consequences) can lead to a diplomatic mess.


Third, the presence of security contractors in lieu of US soldiers themselves will not offer a degree of comfort to the local population either. They were viewed with resentment and unease by the local population when in Afghanistan before. Also, many years ago employees of DynCorp had hired child prostitutes in Bosnia.


The culprits were packed home upon discovery instead of facing the law as they should have. The element of accountability will be low. This decision can only make murky waters murkier creating confusion between line of authority and decision implementation.


And most important of all, with extremely bad memory of Raymond Davis, a contracted mercenary going berserk and killing three innocent civilian that plunged Pak-US relations to the lowest ebb in 2011; US needs to factor in as to how will Pakistan react to presence of these mercenaries in her backyard? Very badly, rest assured.


Much increased space to India in Afghanistan besides strategic primacy in the region, has already stepped up the ante – this decision by Trump may be the last straw to push Pakistan into the camp of strategic rivals.


The Nation, a New York based magazine, had taped Eric Prince, owner of Black water, in University of Michigan acknowledging its presence and working in Pakistan.


Thus keeping in view, the US Administration led by the unconventional president Trump will be well advised to seriously ponder over the cited concerns, lest he further prolong and compound the mess in Afghanistan that is prone to favour her main competitors in the region.


Saleem Qamar Butt, SI(M) is a senior retired Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis (sqbutt61@gmail.com)


Published in Daily Times, October 28th 2018.

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