Ever since he ambushed Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon on a Saturday morning in July, Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince has been hounding the Trump administration to embrace his batshit crazy plan for winning the war in Afghanistan through the unprovoked slaughter of unarmed civilians by trigger-happy mercenaries. While Mattis gave Prince the death stare politely demurred at the time, President Donald Trump’s growing frustration with the intractable 16-year-old conflict and the imminent deployment of 4,000 new U.S. troops to the country raises the possibility that a White House facing mounting military and political obstacles in the Global War on Terror could entrust the future of the Forever War to private military contractors.
This prospect should, as Task & Purpose’s Adam Weinstein wrote, scare the living bejesus out of you. On Dec. 7, BuzzFeed News published the slide presentation for Prince’s Afghan “exit strategy” in the form of a slide presentation that the Blackwater founder, with Stephen Feinberg of money-grubbing, sex trafficking, Iraqi-killing defense contractor DynCorp, blindsided Mattis with at the Pentagon over the summer. The focus of the plan? Taking the commander-in-chief’s pipe dream of strip-mining Iraq for resources and apply it to America’s longest war, without any real, substantive change in tactics and strategy — other than, you know, shooting everything in sight.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate how laughably bad this is:
- Military mentor teams for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces? Check.
- Overwhelming air superiority from both U.S. and ANDSF aircraft? Check, and no thanks to Prince.
- More governance support? Check, sort of.
- More shadowy CIA operatives and bearded U.S. special operations forces dropping the hammer on the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, anywhere and everywhere? Check, check, check.
The only thing that’s substantively different in Prince’s new “turn key” approach is how it tries to sidestep the pesky negative economic cycle, which has stuck the U.S. government with a $714 billion receipt for a war it’s losing. Prince proposes to solve that by plundering caches of lithium, uranium, phosphorus, and other rare earth elements worth $1 trillion in Helmand Province alone — one of the two provinces Prince’s war plan focuses on:
The slides lay out “a model of an affordable way for the United States to stabilize a failed state where we are presently wasting American youth and tens of billions of dollars annually,” a Prince spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in a statement on Dec. 7. (When stopped by the story’s author for comment, Price had a different response: “You’re a fucking hack.”)
Prince’s spokesman also noted that Frontier Services Group, the China-focused private military corp that Prince has been standing up since at least February 2017, “would provide logistics support to the extractive firms with secure transportation and camp support.”
Never mind that the Marine Corps’ return to Helmand this year, for the first time since the end of NATO combat operations in 2014, offers “a blueprint for President Donald Trump’s troop surge” and subsequent training and advising missions designed to strengthen the ANDSF, according to the Los Angeles Times. Never mind that U.S.-led personnel in Helmand recently knocked off the leader of the Taliban’s infamous “Red Unit” commandos — a major blow to the terror group, as well as the opium trade that helps finance militants across the country.
Helmand may have been a tragic nexus of U.S. military fatalities during the first decade of fighting, but the Pentagon now sees it as “one of the few bright spots in the Afghan war,” per the Los Angeles Times. So why screw it up so a sketchy mercenary goon can take home some extra stones with extreme prejudice?
And the prejudice will be extreme, for sure. On Prince’s watch, Blackwater made a habit of “intentionally using unnecessary, excessive and unjustified deadly force,” to include massacring Iraqi civilians; literally swerving their vehicles to run down unarmed women; promoting “a culture of lawlessness” that allegedly included child sex trafficking and weapons smuggling; threatening their own employees with blackmail and death; and deliberately flouting all standards of humane conduct (yes, even in a war zone) in favor of violent depravity with full knowledge that they remained exempt from Iraqi law.
The publication of Prince’s Afghan war plan comes as the Blackwater founder is even further ingratiating himself to the Trump administration’s national security apparatus. White House and CIA officials are reportedly meeting with private contractors to consider a slate of programs for the United States to engage in “privatized covert actions, intelligence gathering, and propaganda missions” that include rendition, according to BuzzFeed News. The Intercept notes that those proposals were developed by Prince and CIA veteran-turned-contractor John Maguire, “with assistance” from Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame. CIA director Mike Pompeo, who’s currently under consideration to replace the increasingly unruly Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, has been bullish on the idea of a private covert army. That detachment of private troops would be “a direct-action arm, totally off the books,” one source told The Intercept. “The whole point is this is supposed to report to the president and Pompeo directly.”
It’s worth noting that Prince is already well-ensconced in Trump’s orbit: He’s a close chum of sometimes Trump propaganda maestro Steve Bannon, he’s the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (lol), and he acted as an “unofficial envoy” for president-elect Trump during a pre-inaugural meeting with Russian officials in the Seychelles islands. But the newly revealed details of his plan underscore the dangers of Prince’s continued influence on U.S. military affairs — high-level sway that he’s maintained ever since the Bush administration sought out Blackwater to develop a secret assassination program targeting Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan in 2004. But administrations of all political stripes have rolled over and shown Prince their bellies; in 2010, the Obama administration declined to charge Blackwater (by then rebranded as “Xe”) despite its violations of economic sanctions on Sudan, instead awarding the company contracts of $120 million for Department of State security and $100 million for “CIA work,” according to McClatchy. (Prince resigned as president in 2009 but remained on the board through 2010.)
Now, despite years of withering criticism of his profiteering, management, and brutality, Prince has a new foothold in the White House.
Veterans may fill the private military contractors’ ranks, but those firms have historically lacked the good order and discipline required to actually achieve strategic objectives in an increasingly muddled global conflict — a rot that starts with toxic leadership by Prince. Blackwater “harmed, rather than helped, the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq, going against our best doctrine and undermining critical efforts of our troops,” according to a 2007 Brookings Institution analysis based on hundreds of interviews and decades of research on PMCs. “Even worse, the government can no longer carry out one of its most basic core missions: to fight and win the nation’s wars. Instead, the massive outsourcing of military operations has created a dependency on private firms like Blackwater that has given rise to dangerous vulnerabilities.”
As the Global War on Terror stretches on, it’s easy to find options that don’t sacrifice more American troops and taxpayer dollars on what seems like a lost cause in Afghanistan. But Erik Prince is a dynamic and well-connected fraud intent on plundering foreign countries without any sense of the moral authority and responsibility that the U.S. military demands of its uniformed warfighters. Any “victory” achieved through the methods he’s pioneered during his professional career as a cold-blooded mercenary will always be, at its core, a defeat.