The New York Times reported July 10 on meetings between President Trump, his top advisers and private military and security company (PMSC) magnates, Erik Prince (founder of Blackwater) and Stephen A. Feinberg (owner of DynCorp International) to discuss plans for having contractors take over U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The plans are said to hew closely to the Wall Street Journal op-ed Erik Prince published in June proposing a “MacArthur solution” to Afghanistan. Like the historical analogy it borrows from, the plan proposes a U.S. viceroy, but unlike MacArthur, the viceroy would carry out his plans with the help of a private army.
Could such a plan actually improve counterinsurgency, leading to the success that has thus eluded the U.S. (and NATO)? In a word: no. And the plan is much more than a different strategy; it reformulates (one might say privatizes) U.S. goals.
General studies of PMSCs (though not focused on counterinsurgency, per se) begin to shed light on their overall impact on war. Looking at civil wars in Africa, only when there is competition among companies do PMSCs working for government and rebels have a positive effect on civil war termination. This suggests that we may not want the unified effort Prince envisions.
Data from Iraq show that competition is not enough. Only when there is competition joined by contracts with particular performance incentives do PMSCs reduce violence in an area. And using the Private Security Database (PSD) to focus on contracts between governments and PMSCs in failed or failing states — notably applicable for Afghanistan — is shown to increase conflict severity.
More detailed studies show that PMSCs work differently than military forces and should increase our skepticism of their counterinsurgency value. Different recruitment, motivation, rules, training and flexibility all contribute to a number of well-known concerns over misbehavior by individuals, PMSCs and the governments (and other clients) that contract with them. The International Code of Conduct (ICoC), Private Security Standards and other transnational regulatory efforts the U.S. has supported all limit PMSC behavior in ways that address these concerns by drawing PMSCs closer to common rules for public forces. (It is worth mentioning that a PMSC could not do some of what Prince calls for, like fighting alongside Afghan forces, without violating these regulations — and the regulations are now required for private security providers working for the Pentagon in contingency operations abroad.)
Beyond all of this, evaluating Prince’s plan as an attempt to improve counterinsurgency has three significant difficulties. First, it would not solve the thorniest problem: working with the Afghan government. Just as U.S. and NATO leaders do, the viceroy would have to work closely with the Afghan government. My guess is that the Afghan government might not react warmly to this new viceroy — what then?
Second, everything we know about successful counterinsurgency tells us that it requires close integration between political goals and forces. It is the tethering of force to common and shared concerns that begin to build its legitimacy and thus the political buy-in on which stable governance is built. But with PMSCs you often trade integration away. This has been particularly true with U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Third, though Prince is right that hiring locals might be cheaper — and also provide contextual knowledge, which can be critical to successful counterinsurgency — when local knowledge is used to satisfy the concerns of external or private patrons rather than common concerns, it contributes to “warlordism.” Warlordism is the worst form of rentier state, neither stable nor legitimate. A viceroy, working to secure Afghanistan’s resources, threatens to do just this. (By the way, the East India Company that Prince touts as a model also generally yielded warlords — and to the extent that it achieved the stability Prince claims, it was only due to continual intervention by British forces.)
These shortcomings are why many similar plans that Prince has touted over the past 10 years — such as those for private forces to replace NATO or the U.N. (Prince actually visited me at my George Washington University office to pitch the latter), respond to the genocide in Darfur and more — have been politely refused by previous U.S. administrations. They also explain why Gens. MacMaster and Mattis are reportedly less than supportive.
But the plan Prince describes is not just unlikely to improve the United States’ ability to conduct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it reflect entirely different of U.S. goals. Instead of an — albeit flawed — policy aimed at building a legitimate government willing to be part of the international community, this plan aims only to secure resources (and it is not even clear for whom).
On that count, it is strikingly similar to news this month that the Kremlin is now rewarding PMSCs that seize oil and mining facilities from the Islamic State in Syria with profits from those same facilities. Prince’s “MacArthur strategy” aims not to help Afghanistan reach its potential, but to protect its resources. Had the U.S. had such goals in post-World War II Japan, it’s unlikely that we would remember the MacArthur strategy with the same reverence.
Deborah Avant is a professor and director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.