Trump's changing view of Afghanistan: are private armies part of the plan?
Donald Trump has defied expectation by pledging to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan.
In an address from Arlington, Virginia, the president announced that, following a review of the US strategy in Afghanistan, he had concluded that hasty withdrawal would be a mistake and that “our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made”.
This, he said, involves using “all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic, and military – toward a successful outcome”.
Ahead of Trump’s statement, it was widely reported that the White House was considering turning to the private sector to draw up a plan to deploy troops there.
Trump did not openly discuss such plans in his speech, but he did not rule them out either. His address was noticeably light on detail.
One of the private consultants tasked with the planning is well known in private security circles – Erik Prince, CEO of the private military firm Academi, previously called Blackwater. His organisation ran one of the largest and most heavily armed private military operations in post-invasion Iraq.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Prince set out his vision for a private military solution to resolve the “expensive disaster” in early 2017. He draws on several historical cases for inspiration, such as the East India Company, which effectively ruled large parts of India with its private army during British rule, and General MacArthur, who administered post-war Japan.
Prince proposed to put an “American viceroy” in charge in Afghanistan to consolidate authority. This person would have significant decision making powers “so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions”. His proposal implies that the viceroy is meant to have authority over all coalition efforts and the ability to allot property rights.
Trump didn’t speak directly to this in his Virginia address, but he did rail against the current approach to making decisions, arguing:
Micromanagement from Washington DC does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgement and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.
To address the current effectiveness problems of the Afghan army, Prince has, in other media appearances, talked of bringing in private military and security companies to live, train, advise and lead their local counterparts.
If this is what he has in mind as he puts together his plan for the Trump administration, there is significant reason for concern and it is unlikely to succeed.