Would Trump consider replacing U.S. troops in Syria with American mercenaries?

By Jon Dougherty

In May 2017, Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal and founder of private military contractor Blackwater USA, pitched an idea to President Donald Trump that he should consider using private military contractors (PMCs), another name for “mercenaries,” in Afghanistan.

Prince, whose sister is Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, detailed his plan in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. Calling his the “MacArthur Model” after famous World War II and Korean War Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Prince noted that the war has cost America trillions with no appreciable gains some 17 years after President George W. Bush invaded in the aftermath of 9/11.

Here’s a synopsis of what he suggested to the president:

— “First, he should consolidate authority in Afghanistan with one person: an American viceroy who would lead all U.S. government and coalition efforts—including command, budget, policy, promotion and contracting—and report directly to the president…. A better approach would resemble Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s leadership of postwar Japan. Given clear multiyear authority, MacArthur made bold moves like repealing restrictive speech laws and granting property rights. Those directives moved Japan ahead by centuries.”

— “Second, Mr. Trump should authorize his viceroy to set rules of engagement in collaboration with the elected Afghan government to make better decisions, faster. Troops fighting for their lives should not have to ask a lawyer sitting in air conditioning 500 miles away for permission to drop a bomb.”

— “Third, we must build the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces the effective and proven way, instead of spending billions more pursuing the ‘ideal’ way.”

What is the ideal way?

For 250 years, the East India Company prevailed in the region through the use of private military units known as “presidency armies.” They were locally recruited and trained, supported and led by contracted European professional soldiers. The professionals lived, patrolled, and—when necessary—fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their local counterparts for multiyear deployments. That long-term dwelling ensured the training, discipline, loyalty and material readiness of the men they fought alongside for years, not for a one-time eight-month deployment.

An East India Company approach would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support. The U.S. military should maintain a small special-operations command presence in the country to enable it to carry out targeted strikes, with the crucial difference that the viceroy would have complete decision-making authority in the country so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions. A nimbler special-ops and contracted force like this would cost less than $10 billion per year, as opposed to the $45 billion we expect to spend in Afghanistan in 2017.

Prince had additional suggestions, but his principle suggestion was to replace the still-significant number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan with PMCs because he believes they could be more effective and a better deal for taxpayers.

More details were laid out in a Sept. 2018 Military Times article which noted that Prince’s $5 billion plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan included deploying some 5,500 private contractors — mostly former special operations troops — and a 90-aircraft private air force for close-air support.

The president never adopted this strategy. Subsequent reports following Prince’s op-ed noted that then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general; then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former Marine general; and John Kelly, another former four-star Marine general who was then the president’s Homeland Security secretary and would later become chief of staff were all opposed to the idea.

But the three of them are gone now and, according to Asia Times, Prince’s plan has not died, and now that the president has announced he wants half of the 14,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan to be withdrawn, some believe the time has come to implement it.

One of them is Sean McFate, a former US Army officer and private military contractor and author.

“Erik Prince has been waiting in the wings for Mattis and General Kelley to leave, and he is then going to re-pitch his Afghanistan plan to the president, who, I am told, is sympathetic to it,” he told Asia Times. “Previously, the generals had blocked a one-on-one meeting, but they are all gone. There is a high likelihood they will meet.”

He said he believes that Prince “will pitch a simple plan, basically a handwave that we can solve all these problems with 6,500 contractors,” which he described as “absurd.”

However, McFate believes if Prince gets an audience with Trump he’ll also pitch a similar plan for Syria.

“Syria is now a better opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept” than Afghanistan, McFate added.

Russian mercenaries operating with the Wagner Group, with Moscow’s tacit, though not public, approval, have been in Syria for a couple of years.

In fact, hundreds of Wagner mercenaries were killed and wounded by U.S. and Syrian allies nearly a year ago in February 2018, a battle that has since been acknowledged by then-CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has opposed Prince’s idea, so that means it’s a non-starter in his country. But Syria is another matter.

The Russian military depends primarily on conscripts so after its own decade-long stint in Afghanistan and following a disastrous showing in Chechnya in the 1990s, Moscow has grown risk-averse when it comes to the lives of military personnel.

That’s what makes utilizing the Wagner Group — and “volunteer” and “Cossack” forces  that have appeared throughout Russia — so appealing. Deployed largely in a light infantry role, which is most prone to casulties, Russian President Vladimir Putin can avoid the domestic fallout of losing troops while still achieving its military and foreign policy objectives.

That said, according to reports, Wagner personnel nevertheles utilize Russian state facilities – bases, aircraft and hospitals – and are even awarded Russian state medals.

Another issue for American PMCs is this: What happens if they encounter Russian counterparts and exchange fire and casualties? McFate told Asia Times he thinks such incidents could lead to an escalation.

Still another question remains — is Prince even in business? He has said he has gotten out since selling Blackwater, but he still has contacts in the PMC industry.

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