One of the Iraq War’s most explosive criminal cases forced an uncomfortable debate about America’s reliance on private security firms in times of conflict. A decade later, that case is back in the spotlight as senior White House officials look to the founder of one such organization, Blackwater’s Erik Prince, for help extricating the U.S. military from its morass in Afghanistan.
As America’s longest war nears the start of its 17th year, and the Trump administration remains without a clear strategy, Prince has suggested that contractors could gradually supplant the 14,000 U.S. and NATO troops who remain in Afghanistan. Yet, for those opposed to the idea, the court case is a reminder of why such an approach seems so reckless and ill-advised.
Following an appeal, three former Blackwater security guards — Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty — learned last week that they will be resentenced for their roles in the 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left more than 30 Iraqi civilians dead and wounded. A fourth contractor, Nicholas Slatten, had his murder conviction vacated, though it’s unclear whether he’ll be retried. Families of the men are hopeful they’ll be freed.
The 2007 incident strained relations between Baghdad and Washington at one of the Iraq War’s most vulnerable moments, and raised tough questions — many still unresolved — about the accountability of hired guns who supplement combat troops.
This debate has once again engulfed Washington.
“It’s nuts,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated combat veteran who held high-profile roles in the Pentagon and with NATO before serving as President Bill Clinton’s drug czar through the late 1990s.
“Single moms from Texas getting paid $120,000 to drive a truck in Iraq, that’s all well and good,” he said, alluding to the ample salaries government contractors can command while working in war zones. “But having contractors fly armed helicopters and conduct armed missions was a terrible idea. This court case underscores it.”
Loyalty, propriety and accountability top the list of concerns. Organizations such as Blackwater — and the mercenaries they employ — should not be trusted to prosecute America’s wars, detractors say.
Prince sold his stake in Blackwater seven years ago, yet he remains involved with military contracting overseas through a new company. After the fallout from the Nisour Square shootings, Blackwater changed its name to Xe. It later became part of other companies specializing in security-related services.
In a series of national media appearances and interviews this week, he has argued that privatizing the mission in Afghanistan would greatly drive down costs, which are nearing $900 billion, and promote stability through the installation of a permanent leadership team responsible for all diplomatic and military activity.
Though he would benefit financially should the administration elect to go this route, Prince insists the move is not motivated by profit. And accountability, he said, would be a given.
A mercenary force in Afghanistan would comprise about 5,500 contractors and 90 aircraft, Prince told USA Today. Contractors, paid by the U.S. government, would wear Afghan uniforms, he said, and his air force would attack hostile entities only with approval from the Afghan government.
He’s also suggested appointing a viceroy to direct the campaign.
In the White House, two of Trump’s top officials, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, have advocated the idea. Prince, whose sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also told CNN this week that he has spoken with people close to the president, including Bannon, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and unidentified members of Congress.
The chief executive of another global services company that specializes in armed conflict, DynCorp’s Stephen Feinberg, has been a part of these White House discussions, too. The New York Times reported last month that Feinberg, unlike Prince, has met directly with Trump to discuss Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has been frosty toward the idea. Prince’s plan calls for embedding contracted trainers within Afghan army units operating closest to the action. The Pentagon favors a similar strategy, albeit using a mix of conventional troops and Special Forces. Senior military leaders have discussed this for many months.
With backing from the Pentagon, the war’s top commander, Gen. John Nicholson, wants to grow his force by around 4,000 American troops, with a match from other NATO countries. They would reinforce the units there now and, it is hoped, help the Afghans claw back gains made by the Taliban and a determined Islamic State faction whose influence is spreading. Such an increase would be modest compared to the surge of forces directed by President Barack Obama in 2009.
It was Bannon who approached Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the idea of converting to a contracted force, as the Times reported in July. “Mr. Mattis listened politely but declined to include the outside strategies in a review of Afghanistan policy” that he’s developing with McMaster, the Times wrote, citing people briefed on the discussions.
A spokesman for Mattis’s office declined to comment, calling the secretary’s conversation private.
A White House spokesman did not respond to questions seeking clarity on the administration’s discussions about Afghanistan strategy and how the potential use of private contractors has informed those talks.
Attempts to speak with Prince were unsuccessful, though a spokesman provided a statement to The Washington Post indicating support for his four former Blackwater employees and his gratitude to the appellate court for recognizing the “unique nature” of their relationship with the U.S. government.
Speaking Monday on CNN, Prince said that his proposal for Afghanistan would save the Pentagon $40 billion and “create the off-ramp for U.S. forces to leave.”
“For the president,” Prince said, “I think he’s got to say, ‘After 16 years, when do we try something different? … We’re still losing Americans. There were two American kids killed last week in the first 30 days of their deployment. Enough.’”
Prince has indicated his army would be bound by the same standards set forth in U.S. military law, telling radio host Tom Ashbrook last month that he’s “worked through this” with a former Defense Department general counsel. Prince did not identify the attorney, saying only that they discussed “the exact structure for how to do that in a legal, ethical and accountable model.”
This has been a strong point of contention for many years, one that factored prominently in the debate that erupted in tandem with the Blackwater criminal cases being revisited now, said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
After leaving the Army in 2000, McFate joined the defense contracting giant DynCorp International, deploying throughout Africa where he helped train and organize foreign military forces battling extremism, genocide and unrest provoked by endless political upheaval. Since shifting to academia a decade ago (he’s now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service), McFate has studied the industry closely, and points to the rise of shadowy, unregulated mercenary forces in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere as cause for concern.
Contract armies can operate without the same degree of oversight and scrutiny applied to military personnel, McFate said. And their lack of transparency is particularly troubling. “This world,” he told The Post, “is more opaque than the CIA or the DOD. … And the trend is invisible to most Americans.”
One of Prince’s proposals is to implement less-restrictive rules of engagement, “so mercenaries can get stuff done,” McFate added. “That should be dog whistles to all of us who care about the conduct of war.”