I have an interesting issue with which to discuss with y’all, and I look forward to reading some of your comments. First of all, let me make this statement in full disclosure, I was a civilian contractor with a company called MPRI from 2005-2007 mentoring, training, and advising the Afghan National Army in southern Afghanistan, based in Kandahar. Our duties were very prescribed as I had an advisory team of nearly 20 who worked with the Afghan Army 205th Corps (Division level) headquarters and their subordinate brigade headquarters. And based on that experience I found a recent proposal very intriguing.
As reported by the Washington Post — who took a very biased viewpoint — “The White House is still struggling to come up with an Afghanistan strategy.
A long-expected review of the current American commitment to the war-blighted nation has stalled, with President Trump reportedly dissatisfied with the bulk of the solutions offered by his key lieutenants. In that vacuum, Erik Prince — the founder of private security firm Blackwater and brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos — has set about pushing his own plan: Send in the mercenaries.
According to a number of reports, as well as Prince’s own television appearances this week, the proposal involves close to 5,000 private military contractors replacing the U.S. troops currently deployed in support of Afghanistan’s national security forces. Instead of the short-term deployments of U.S. troops, the mercenaries, drawn from a range of Western nations, would be embedded with some 91 Afghan battalions for “the long haul,” reported the Financial Times.
Prince also proposed building a private air force with close to 100 aircraft, including fixed-wing jets, attack helicopters and drones, to help compensate for the woes of the fledgling Afghan air force. Prince argues his plan is a cost-effective alternative to the current U.S. role in Afghanistan, and the privatization scheme has reportedly piqued the interest of White House advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Prince may also have found an eager listener in Trump, who is not happy about the prospect of sending more troops to fight an “unwinnable” war against the Taliban. Why not outsource the job and sweep aside the meddling of Washington wonks, bureaucrats and those ornery rules of engagement that restrict the actions of American troops?”
First of all, let me clarify something. During my time in Afghanistan, those under the MPRI contract, in the forward deployed advisory teams working with the Regional Commands had to be in same uniforms as U.S. troops: Army camouflage. On our uniform, instead of saying U.S. Army, it said MPRI on the name tape. Also, we were required to maintain the exact same personal grooming standards, no beards or long hair. And lastly, we were unarmed — now that was a bit sporty, my friends – unless we had to go outside the Kandahar “wire” in order to visit other advisory teams, or when I went to visit the Afghanistan border with Pakistan at Spin Boldak. Our mission was to mentor, train, and advise, but not participate in any combat operations. But, you can bet any time we were out on a ground convoy, there always seemed to be an extra M4 in the vehicle. After all, it’s about force protection.
But what Mr. Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, proposes is something that he states will cut the costs of the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, but enables detractors to use that word — mercenary. What Prince offers is to have armed contractors embedded with Afghan Kandaks (battalions) and accompany them on missions. Mr. Prince does bring up a very pertinent point that our military is so strapped, we don’t currently have the manpower to fulfill this role down to that level. And another point is that the current rotations have our troops only spending 6-12 months with their Afghan counterparts. I can attest that it’s hard to develop a strong, confident, lasting relationship with an Afghan military leader — trust me I know. However, I don’t know if this is the right solution for our nation.
I’ve been critical on these pages of paramilitary forces used by Russia in their operations to overrun and annex Crimea and eastern Ukraine. So, here are my questions: what uniforms would these combat advisory contractors wear? What personal standards of behavior must they adhere to — for instance, we weren’t allowed any consumption of alcoholic beverages. Are these individuals under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and what would the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) prescribe as far as host nation enforcement ability? Who sets the rules of engagement and employment criteria? Is this force operating under the purview of a uniformed American commander, or their own? Which leads me to the question of chain of command. The most important issue is simple: who directs their operational employment and engagement?
I suppose my greatest concern is whether or not this force is acting on behalf of the American government?
Mr. Prince probably shouldn’t have used the comparison of the British East India Company as an example. If you read the Washington Post piece, you’ll find they bludgeoned him on that. I’m wondering if this organization would be more akin to a French Foreign Legion-type formation? Also, there’s a negative perception that still looms over Mr. Prince’s Blackwater organization. I have no issue with hiring private security contractors who work within our Department of State or others for specific personal security detachment (PSD) operations, or perhaps convoy security augmentation.
But, to ponder the development of a civilian contractor army — and they’d also have their own private air force — may be a bridge too far. I understand President Trump’s frustration over the lack of progress in Afghanistan, and he is searching for better solutions. I recently shared with y’all on these pages an analysis and solutions for Afghanistan.
We’ve fought an economy of force mission there and never dealt with the external influencers affecting that area of operations. We also need to move away from a nation-building mentality to one of striking the enemy, simultaneously, in order to erode his sanctuaries and interdict his resource support. We need to focus our military on its core mission, not the ancillary distractions.
I prefer this to be done by our uniformed service members. Yes, there’s a place for private contractors on this new 21st century battlefield. But it’s to complement what our military is doing, not conduct operations as a standalone. We have some superb and ultimate professionals who’ve served this nation honorably in our special operations forces, as well as light infantry formations. Yes, we can employ them, but to do so as a separate standalone contractor formation is a bridge too far.
I don’t like the reference of mercenary, but if this formation is to be made up of American and non-American former military, then it may fit. This formation must fit into the scheme of our Department of Defense and its policy. I’m not even a big fan of the civilian contracted police on our military installations — much prefer our own military police for that responsibility. Yes, we’ve had the private sector provide and conduct military operations in America before – as a matter of fact, that’s where the term “privateers” comes from.
So, what do you think? Should the United States of America utilize a private contractor force and formation, and deploy them into Afghanistan? I must say no.
[Learn more about Allen West’s vision for this nation in his book Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin’s Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom]