After sixteen years of fighting what is by now the longest war in our history, American policymakers are out of ideas when it comes to Afghanistan. The Bush administration was all about nation-building: if only we built schools so that Afghan women could be educated and “liberated,” a grateful people would abandon terrorism and the war would be won. The Obama administration – which came to power on the strength of candidate Obama’s contention that the Iraq war was “the wrong war,” and that we had neglected the Afghan front – instituted a “surge” of some 40,000 more US troops, and then declared victory in 2014. Now the Trump administration is confronted with the reality of the Taliban in charge of nearly half the country, and the dysfunctional Afghan government barely able to hold Kabul, the capital.
What to do?
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s top political advisor and the architect of his 2016 election victory, has been pushing for the “zero option” – the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Bannon and his fellow nationalists want out for political and ideological reasons: they want to concentrate on the President’s domestic agenda, and oppose on principle the whole nation-building scheme that has been in place since the Obama years. This is what the Trump base wants, as well, but it looks like the nationalists have lost that debate, with the President taking the “zero option” off the table.
The generals, led by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, want to launch yet another “surge,” with at least 3,000 more US troops to be sent into the Afghan quagmire, and more taxpayer dollars pumped into the corrupt and incompetent Afghan governmental apparatus. Trump has reportedly rejected this option as well, and ordered his advisors to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile the Taliban continues to make gains on the battlefield, we continue to suffer casualties, and there is no new policy in place.
Into this policy vacuum comes Erik Prince, notorious founder of Blackwater, the world’s leading mercenary outfit: a company with a dubious history, and a CEO with a reputation to match. Reportedly the Bannon group, frustrated in their desire to get Trump to withdraw, is pushing a plan to “privatize” the Afghan war, and Prince is out there trying to drum up support for the idea. Here is Prince in an interview with Breitbart outlining his proposal.
Listening to Prince make his pitch, it becomes immediately clear that his scheme is not an alternative to a “surge” but rather an adjunct to it: he wants to let the generals have their way for six months or so, and then his company would be brought it to consolidate and maintain the gains made.
At that point, a “Viceroy” would be brought in who would have complete control of US policy in Afghanistan, presumably one of Prince’s employees if not Prince himself. The rules of engagement would be dispensed with, and any level of brutality would be allowed. Since the Afghan government is broke, and is entirely dependent on US aid, one has to assume that the American taxpayers would be paying for Prince’s “services” – oh, but Prince has a handy-dandy solution for this problem, which is to allow him to exploit Afghanistan’s supposedly fabulous mineral resources. Having pocketed this loot, Prince & Co. would be properly compensated for subjugating the Afghan people
Prince explicitly raises the example of the British East India Company, a mercantilist construct that deployed private armies in order to conquer the Indian subcontinent, as an example of a success story. Yet the East India Company was not a success: established in 1600 with a grant of monopoly on all trade with Asia, by 1772 it was begging the British government for a bailout.
Asked what “victory” in Afghanistan would look like, Prince is vague: the Afghan government would be relatively “stable,” and the “export of terrorism” from Afghan territory would cease. How and why Prince’s privateers would be any more successful in bringing this about than the US military has been over the course of the last sixteen years is not clear. What is clear, however, is that a mercenary army would have little incentive to declare – or actually achieve – victory, since that would mean its services were no longer required. Indeed, it would have a strong financial incentive to prolong the conflict – and gin up new ones. This is what happened with the British East India Company, which had a powerful lobby in the Parliament. While the East India lobby was focused on maintaining its monopoly privileges, and lobbying for “free trade,” Prince’s Mercenary Lobby would be pushing for more wars – and for subsidies from the taxpayers.
This kind of “privatization” means private profits for the politically connected and socialized costs imposed on the rest of us. The Prince scheme is crony capitalism at its very worst, imported into the foreign policy realm. It is, in short, a rip-off, just the sort of Washington insider deal that Trump vowed to rid us of when he declared war on what he calls “the swamp.” It doesn’t get much swampier than Erik Prince.
There is no alternative to withdrawing from Afghanistan other than doing what we’ve been doing for the past decade and a half. The Trump team criticizes the Obama administration for announcing our withdrawal date in advance, but was such an announcement really necessary? Short of annexing the country and making Afghanistan a US possession, like Puerto Rico or some Pacific atoll, the Taliban didn’t need to be told that the Americans would eventually be leaving.
It’s only a matter of time. Better now than later: better we don’t lose a single additional soldier in that godforsaken wasteland. It’s long past time to withdraw.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.