Snippets of news coming out of the White House in recent weeks indicate that the Trump administration is at an impasse in choosing a strategy for Afghanistan.
Indecision in battle is never good, and Afghanistan is being pummeled: The number of civilian deaths continues to rise, attacks in the capital, Kabul, are growing increasingly deadly, and the Taliban now holds more territory than any time since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Most of these daily battles don’t even make it into the U.S. news cycle, but to read Afghan news sources, such as TOLOnews, is to witness a bloody tick-tock of districts and provinces lost and reclaimed in an almost endless cycle of battles between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. On top of that, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) has established a presence in Afghanistan.
Much — if not all of this — has been attributed to the U.S. troop draw-down under former President Barack Obama, leaving security gaps and vulnerabilities in a country rife with armed players.
So, what’s the plan?
While there are conflicting reports on the precise number, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is said to have pushed for a plan that included sending around 4,000 additional troops on the ground. There are currently around 9,000 U.S. troops there. But when asked by ThinkProgress if any decision had been made, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump responded, “Nope.”
“No decision has been made,” said Stump, who would neither confirm nor deny the content McMaster’s proposal — or if it even exists.
The White House did not respond to questions on whether Trump has decided between additional troops or more private contractors or if he indeed has a timeline for making such decisions.
Far less vague that any plan McMaster may or may not have made is the alacrity with which private contractors have shown interest in the possibility of more lucrative military contracts.
The New York Times recently reported that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and his senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are courting advice from two giants in the world of military contractors: Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater (now owner of Frontier Services Group) and Stephen Feinberg, owner of DynCorp International.
Military contractors have a bad reputation in most quarters. The most infamous incident might be the Nisour Square incident in 2007, when Blackwater contractors shot and killed 14 unarmed civilians in Iraq. But the scandals involving these contractors are many and inversely proportional to their accountability.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow specializing in U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan at the Brookings Institute, told ThinkProgress that while he’s sure Defense Secretary James Mattis is “focused on winning,” Mattis has to take his time in advising the president on any decision as “it might buy him credibility with Trump, who isn’t wild about the mission.”
He said that “there are certain circumstances where it can be more economical to use private military contractors.”
“This is the case where the mission is more of a temporary spike…and when the contractors are foreign,” said O’Hanlon. “But in this case, it strikes me that we’re potentially talking about a longish mission.”
He also said that what Afghan units primarily need now is training and assisting in combat environments and that these are not good fits for contractors.
But it’s a given that Prince and Feinberg will push for more private contractors to be used in Afghanistan — both men have made billions of dollars off overseas military contracts. Indeed, Prince is working to build momentum for the idea, with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal and multiple interviews on public radio.
When pressed in a an NPR interview on Monday, Prince said his new outfit, Frontier Services Group, would “absolutely” bid for any available contract.
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, said seeking advice from those with such clear interest in profit is “an awful idea.”
He said that it’s not entirely unethical. “But there are lots of ethical problems once you get into military contractors. Blackwater was a complete disaster,” Painter added.
“That’s part of what you get when you vote these guys in — they’ve got their buddies in the defense contracting business. And these types of outfits all what to feed at the trough there,” said Painter, adding that just because it’s a bad idea, it doesn’t mean it’s an ethics violation.
“I’m sure these guys put a lot into the till [in campaign and party contributions] to get their little quid-pro-quo here,” said Painter.
Both Feinberg and Prince have donated significant sums to the Trump campaign, superPACs supporting Trump as well as the Republican party. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary, and, as the Washington Post reported, Prince even sat in on a January meeting that served to set up a “back-channel” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But what would a profitable quid-pro-quo for Prince and Feinberg mean for Afghanistan, where local security forces continue to suffer heavy casualties?
Davood Moradian, director of the Kabul-based Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies told ThinkProgress that the use of private contractors has been part of the reason why the United States has failed in its mission in Afghanistan.
“Private sectors are fundamentally incompatible with the US objective in Afghanistan, which is winning the war,” said Moradian. “If they’re looking for a new strategy, then the new strategy should further constrain the role of the private sector in US efforts in Afghanistan rather than expand them.”
“There is sufficient manpower in Afghanistan, both for the military and civilian purpose — so this notion that Afghanistan needs manpower does not reflect the reality,” Moradian added.
The priority, he said, should be to train and empower Afghans to “defend their country and contribute to the construction of their country.”
“There’s no need for private contractors to come here and do what the US military does not want to do,” he said. “Afghans see private contractors as “mercenaries who don’t have any regard for Afghan laws and customs, and, for that matter, are not constrained by U.S. military warfare regulation. They are endowed with unprecedented impunity … that will further exacerbate U.S.-Afghan relations.”
There’s another prong to the U.S. strategy there: to lean on Pakistan for security in Afghanistan. The State Department has blocked $350 million in aid funding to Pakistan in order to pressure the Afghan neighbor into cracking down on armed groups such as the Haqqani network.
“We’ve been hoping for 15 years that that kind of behavior would illicit a response, but it hasn’t,” said O’Hanlon. “It doesn’t play well with the Pakistanis — they’re going to be offended that we think they can be bought for $350 million a year,” said, adding that Pakistan sees the US as largely responsible for the instability in Afghanistan.
Moradian agrees. “That is another strategic blunder by Washington, to expect Pakistan to be a party to its strategy in Afghanistan…but unfortunately, the US has excluded its potential regional partners [such as India and Iran] and put all of its eggs in its enemy’s basket,” he said.
“I hope any new strategy will reflect reality rather than the wishful thinking of the previous administration.”