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.


ISIS forced Iraqi scientist to make chemical weapons for terrorist group

Leaders from the radical Islamic State forced a captured Iraqi scientist to churn out chemical weapons for the organization, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

In 2014 after the city of Mosul fell to ISIS, geologist Suleiman al-Afari with Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals, then 49, said he was hoping merely to just keep his job and, no doubt, his life, as IS fighters went from one government bureaucracy to the next rounding up Iraqi officials.

But as it turned out, ISIS leaders actually offered him a new job: Making chemical weapons for the Islamic State.

Though he knew little about such compounds, Afari nevertheless spent the next 15 months supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization at the time.

“Do I regret it? I don’t know if I’d use that word,” Afari told the Post.

Captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016, he now sites in a prison in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

“They had become the government and we now worked for them,” he said. “We wanted to work so we could get paid.”

The Post noted further:

Afari, who is 52 now and on death row, recounted his recruitment and life under the Islamic State in a rare interview inside the fortresslike headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorism Department. An affable, neatly groomed man, Afari is among the few known participants in the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program to be captured alive.

He described in matter-of-fact detail the terrorist group’s successful attempts to make sulfur mustard — a first-generation chemical weapon that inflicted tens of thousands of casualties during World War I — as part of an ambitious, little-understood effort to create novel weapons and delivery systems to defend the Islamic State’s territory and terrorize its opponents. His account was confirmed and augmented by U.S. and Kurdish officials who participated in missions to destroy the Islamic State’s weapons plants and to kill or capture its senior leaders.

Afari’s activities seem to verify earlier reports that ISIS was in fact involved in the making of internationally banned chemical weapons as a means of increasing the organization’s strength against enemies with greater firepower.

The program Afari supervised appears to have stalled out early in 2015, the Post noted, after Iraqi and U.S. leaders launched “aggressive” operations to locate and destroy facilities used to produce lethal chemicals and kill or capture leaders.

But the threat hasn’t disappeared entirely. ISIS leaders are believed to have moved equipment and, perhaps, lethal chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, according to Iraqi officials. Some of it is either been buried or hidden, they add.

Progress on the program appears to have stalled in early 2016, after U.S. and Iraqi leaders launched an aggressive campaign to destroy production facilities and kill or capture its leaders. Yet, the threat has not been entirely erased. Islamic State leaders moved equipment and perhaps chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, Iraqi officials say, and some of it may have been buried or hidden.

In 2017 the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point published a report documenting the rise of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program.

Titled, “The Evolution of the Islamic State’s Chemical Weapons Efforts,” the authors noted:

The Islamic State is the first non-state actor to have developed a banned chemical warfare agent and combined it with a projectile delivery system. However, it appears to have been forced to abandon its chemical weapons production after the loss of Mosul in June 2017. The absence of chemical attacks outside of Mosul after the city became cut-off from the rest of the ‘caliphate’ earlier this year indicates that the group has not established alternative production facilities. But U.S. intelligence believes that a new chemical weapons cell has been set up in the Euphrates River Valley.

In late July 2015, ISIS fighters fired a number of mortar shells at Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions near the city of Hasakah in northeastern Syria.

Following the attack, a statement released by the YPG described how the explosions released “a yellow gas with a strong smell of onions,” and that “the ground immediately around the impact sites was stained with an olive-green liquid that turned to a golden yellow after exposure to sunshine.”

Troops who were exposed to the substance then suffered symptoms of nausea and burning sensations. Later, U.S. officials confirmed through samples taken at the site of the attack that a small amount of mustard agent, in low concentration, was used.

“This was not the first time the Islamic State or one of its predecessors had used chemicals as a weapon, but never before had a non-state actor developed the capability to combine production of a banned chemical warfare agent with a projectile delivery system,” the West Point report noted.

Israel attacks Iranian targets in Syria in major escalation; 11 dead

Israel Defense Force missiles and aircraft struck targets at Syria’s international airport near Damascus on Monday during a rare daylight raid that military officials say involved Iranian targets.

Also rare was the Israeli government’s admission that it was involved in striking Iranian targets inside Syria, a departure from a years-long policy of ambiguity and denial regarding its military operations there.

Targets included munitions storage facilities as well as an intelligence-gathering site and a military training camp, reports said.

The strikes were launched in response to a surface-to-surface rocket attack that Iranian forces alleged fired toward the Jewish state on Sunday that Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted, which was caught on video over a kis resort in the Golan Heights.

The missile intercept followed daylight Israeli airstrikes near the Damascus International Airport.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense IDF attacks since May. The group said 11 were killed in the strikes.

Russian military officials, meanwhile, said four Syrian troops were among those killed.

Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters that the Iranian missile attack which led to the strong Israeli response was “premeditated.”

Reports said that Iranian forces launched the mid-range missile from Syria toward Israel from the area near Damascus. IDF officials said the missile had been smuggled into Syria by Iran for the express purpose of launching it at Israel.

Conricus would not identify the type of missile, but he said it had not been used in any of the internal fighting in the Syrian civil war and had “no business” being in the country. He added that Iranian Quds Forces operating in Syria conducted the attack.

Other reports claimed that a number of Israel missiles were also intercepted by Syrian air defenses.

Tass, quoting senior Russian military officials, claimed that 30 Israeli “cruise missiles and guided bombs” were intercepted.

“On January 21, 2019 between 2:11 am and 2:56 am the Israeli Air Force carried out three air strikes on Syria’s territory from the western, southwestern and southern directions. While repelling the strike, the Syrian air defenses destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs,” the National Defense Management Center told reporters.

The Syrian strikes follow another warning last week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iranian threats inside the country would not be tolerated.