More than a year after his plan to privatize the Afghan war was first shot down by the Trump administration, Erik Prince returned late last month to Kabul to push the proposal on the beleaguered government in Afghanistan, where many believe he has the ear — and the potential backing — of the U.S. president.
Prince swept through the capital, meeting with influential political figures within and outside the administration of President Ashraf Ghani.
“He’s winning Afghans over with the assumption that he’s close to Trump,” said one well-informed Afghan, adding that many of Prince’s ideas feed into frustration with and within the Afghan military, particularly given its high casualty rate.
But Prince also sparked what Ghani, in a statement Thursday, condemned as “a debate” within the country over “adding new foreign and unaccountable elements to our fight.”
“Under no circumstances,” the statement said, will Afghanistan “allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business.”
At the Pentagon, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters that “I absolutely do not agree” with Prince’s contention that he could win the war more quickly and for less money with a few thousand hired guns.
In addition to such a plan violating signed agreements with the Afghan government, Votel said, “the most significant downside is that we turn our national interest over to contractors.” Quoting earlier comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Votel said, “I don’t think this is a very good strategy.”
What has given new life to the plan is a widespread belief in Kabul and Washington that Prince has a willing audience in President Trump, who is known to be frustrated with the cost and slow progress of the strategy he adopted a year ago — a belief buttressed by the White House’s refusal to reject the idea out of hand.
“We are constantly assessing our strategies, and are open to new approaches that would help us achieve our strategic objectives,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said Thursday in response to questions about whether Prince’s proposal was under consideration.
The spokesperson, who cited White House ground rules in refusing to be named, also noted that Trump said this summer that he was “not reviewing an Erik Prince plan.” That comment, in an August interview with Reuters, came the day after Trump national security adviser John Bolton, asked the same question, told ABC News that “I’m always open to new ideas.”
Administration officials, and several people familiar with U.S. and Afghan government thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity about sensitive policymaking, said there was no firm indication that Trump, while clearly impatient about a war he once vowed to quickly win, is prepared to jump ship. But several noted they would not be surprised to wake up one morning to a presidential tweet saying the opposite.
Prince’s appearance in Afghanistan, along with interviews he has given over the past several weeks, coincided with a perception that the war, again, is going badly. Taliban fighters scored several at least temporary victories over the summer, and Votel acknowledged Thursday that Afghan military casualties had increased over last year.
Clearly sensing vulnerability in Ghani, whose term expires next year, a Prince spokesman, Marc Cohen, on Thursday called him “corrupt, inept,” and said his government was bilking the American taxpayer “to the tune of $62 billion per year while standing by as Afghans continue to get slaughtered.”
Prince, now in Washington to drum up backing for his plan, concluded during his recent trip to Kabul that Ghani’s “support is dwindling and he’s increasingly isolated,” Cohen said.
Responding in kind, Qadir Shah, spokesman for Ghani’s National Security Council, accused Prince of having a “colonialist type of arrogance” and called him “a war profiteer who stands to make $10 billion a year from such a plan.”
“There is consensus amongst our political leadership and people that it’s a terrible idea,” Shah said. “It will never happen.”
Prince, the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and a substantial contributor to Trump’s presidential campaign, is a former Navy SEAL who has made a controversial career out of providing security for hire to the United States and others. Since severing his ties to Blackwater — the company he founded that was accused of heavy-handed practices, including the killing of civilians, while under U.S. contract in Iraq — Prince has cycled through several iterations of the same business and now runs a Hong Kong-based company called Frontier Services.
Making his home at least part time in the United Arab Emirates, he has also been a figure of note in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian election interference, after The Washington Post reported last year that he held a UAE-arranged meeting with a representative of President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles in January 2017. Prince later testified that the meeting was a chance encounter and that he was not representing Trump in any way.
Prince first brought his proposal to the White House early last year, reportedly with the backing of Trump’s then-adviser Stephen K. Bannon. It was quickly rejected by Mattis and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who were pushing for a plan, ultimately approved by Trump, to increase U.S. forces.
Trump “was close to making a decision in our favor last year” and was reluctant about the McMaster strategy, Prince said in an August interview with the Hill newspaper. “And so now that the anniversary [of the new strategy] is coming up yet again . . . the question is, does [Trump] default to the same failed policies of the last 17 years, or does he exercise civilian leadership of the military and go to a sustainable path?”
Bannon is now gone from the White House, but so is McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who joined Mattis in trying to shut the door permanently on Prince.
Prince’s appearance last week in Afghanistan came as the new top U.S. officer there, Gen. Scott Miller, began carrying out an informal review of the U.S. mission. The Pentagon is not expected to recommend major changes to the strategy adopted last year, which moderately increased the number of U.S. troops to more than 14,000, loosened restrictions on airstrikes and called for a stricter stance toward neighboring Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorism and provision of sanctuaries to the Taliban.
In recent months, the administration has pressed for reconciliation with the Taliban, sending senior officials to meet with their representatives in Qatar and appointing veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as its special envoy tasked with jump-starting talks between the militants and the Afghan government.
Among others during his visit, according to several officials and informed individuals in Kabul, Prince met with Ghani’s current and former intelligence chiefs, the current interior minister and his deputy, as well as a number of senior officials, some of whom left government in disputes with Ghani.
In a lengthy interview last week on Afghanistan’s Tolo TV, Prince sharply criticized U.S. strategy, particularly the frequent rotation of American units, as well as what he described as the use of conventional tactics against an unconventional enemy and the lack of dependable air cover. Instead, he outlined a contractor force of about 6,000, drawn from former U.S. and European special forces, 3,600 of whom would be designated as “adjuncts” to Afghan units on the ground, serving under Afghan rules of engagement.
If the contractors did something wrong, he said, they should be prosecuted under American military law. Prince took sharp exception to the Tolo interviewer’s description of the contractors as “mercenaries,” saying they would not count as such under an unspecified “United Nations definition.”
Prince has put the cost of his plan, which he has said would leave about 2,000 U.S. Special Operations troops on the ground and utilize contractor aircraft, at about $5 billion a year. Within six months, he told Tolo, “you would have a very different situation on the ground. I will commit to that.”
Lamothe reported from Kabul. Syed Salhuddin in Kabul and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.