The White House wants mercenaries to lead U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
According to a new report from the New York Times, the White House asked Erik D. Prince, the founder of the private military firm Blackwater, and Stephen A. Feinberg, the billionaire owner of DynCorp International, to use contractors instead of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to hear the two men’s ideas. But Mattis said he would not include outside strategies in a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, which he is currently working on with National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The administration’s overtures to the two mercenary chiefs are concerning for a multitude of reasons, including the history of the companies that Prince and Feinberg lead.
Blackwater, which has twice been renamed and is now called Academi, was thrown out of Iraq after a group of its employees killed 17 people and injured 20 others in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre. The Blackwater contractors, working for the State Department, indiscriminately fired machine guns and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians at a busy roundabout in central Baghdad. A witness at the men’s trial later called the attack “the most horrible botched thing I have ever seen in my life.”
“These men took something that did not belong to them: the lives of 14 human beings,” federal prosecutor Anthony Anthony Asuncion said. “They were turned into bloody bullet-riddled corpses at the hands of these men.”
Three of the contractors were sentenced to 30 years in prison — eight years after the massacre first took place — after being found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter. A fourth, who was first to begin shooting, was given a life sentence after being charged with first-degree murder.
The United Nations welcomed the sentences, as it has repeatedly criticized the “outsourcing of national security to private firms.”
DynCorp is also not without its fair share of controversies. The company’s contractors have been accused of human trafficking in Bosnia, submitting false claims for payment to the U.S. government for work in Iraq, and hiring “dancing boys” to perform for them in Afghanistan.
Both Prince and Feinberg could seriously profit if their recommendations were accepted by the Pentagon. The two men know that, and Bannon and Kushner likely do as well.
Prince, who is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has acted as an unofficial Trump envoy before, so his ideas could hold a lot of sway in the administration. In May, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal advocating for the use of private military units. As an example of a success story with such units, Prince points to the East India Company’s use of “presidency armies,” armed forces which at first helped protect the company’s trading posts and soon transitioned into upholding colonial rule in India. He fails to note in the piece the company’s role in helping maintain the British empire — and how a practice aiding British colonization is probably not the best model for the U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year —making it the longest war in American history — and the Trump administration’s policy in the country is still unclear. Mass attacks since April have killed over 250 people in Afghanistan. In April, the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb, nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” in Nangarhar, in the east of the country. The White House did not confirm if Trump himself authorized the bombing.
In June, Trump gave Mattis complete authority to set troop levels in the country. Mattis is expected to deliver a plan on U.S. policy in Afghanistan to Trump this month, and both he and McMaster likely favor sending more troops to the country.