In keeping with his elevation of military leaders to policy-making roles, President Donald Trump has delegated the power to set US troop levels in Afghanistan to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, although that power would have limits.
But the administration has yet to define a comprehensive strategy for America’s nearly 16-year campaign in the war-torn country.
And, according to the New York Times, Trump’s advisers turned to a controversial set of consultants to help them develop their new Afghan policy.
Steve Bannon, chief Trump strategist, and Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to the president, called on Erik Prince, founder of private security firm Blackwater, and Stephen Feinberg, billionaire owner of military contractor DynCorp, to create proposals to use contractors in Afghanistan rather than US troops.
According to the Times, Bannon was able to track down Mattis at the Pentagon on July 8 and summoned Prince and Feinberg to describe their proposal to the Secretary of Defense.
Mattis, whom The Times said he “listened politely”, ultimately refused to include their ideas in his review of the war in Afghanistan, which he and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. HR McMaster are expected to present to Trump this month.
Prince’s proposal would have adhered to what he described in an editorial from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. In that editorial, he declared the war in Afghanistan “a costly disaster” and called for “an American viceroy” in which authority for the war would be consolidated. He also said the effort should take an “East India Company approach” using private military units working with local partners.
The inclusion of Prince and Feinberg in the Afghan administration’s policy proposal process is part of the efforts of Trump’s advisers to bring a wider range of options to the president’s attention. While their proposal seems unlikely to be included in the final plan, their inclusion by Trump aides has alarmed observers – and not just because of Blackwater’s sordid record in Iraq.
Deborah Avant, professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, highlighted a number of shortcomings in the Prince plan described in The Journal.
Contractors would still be required to work with the Afghan government, as would US and NATO forces, she writes, who may not be receptive to their increased presence.
Entrepreneurs also do not integrate well with local goals and political forces, which is essential in counterinsurgency operations.
Avant also noted that empowering local partners in environments like Afghanistan has been shown to facilitate the rise of warlords – as typically happened under the East India Company when she worked there. in the nineteenth century.
Privatizing the war effort in Afghanistan would likely reduce some of the costs, however – a point White House aide Sebastian Gorka made when he defended consultations with Prince in an interview with CNN. with Jake Tapper.
“If you look at Erik Prince’s record, it’s not about cheating on the government. It’s pretty much the opposite, ”Gorka said. “It’s about saving American taxpayers’ money. It’s about building local capacity… It’s about cost reduction.
Despite the fact that Prince and Blackwater secured large and lucrative contracts under former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama, Gorka described the consultations with the founder of Blackwater as a break with tired thinking and not informed instilled by Beltway’s insularity.
“We are opening the door here in the White House to outside ideas. Why? ”Gorka said, adding,“ Because the last eight years, in fact the last 16 years, Jake, to be honest, disastrous. The policies that were born in the Ring Road by people who never wore it. uniform, people who were in the White House like Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl, helped create the firestorm that is the Middle East, that is ISIS today. new ideas, because the past 16 years have failed the American national interest and the American taxpayer. ”
When Tapper defended the qualifications of those advising Obama, Gorka objected, calling Rhodes’ master’s degree in creative writing – “fictional writing,” he said – “catastrophic.”
“I think Gorka spends more time following Twitter and preparing for his media appearances than seriously thinking about critical national security issues,” said Kahl, who has served as deputy to the president and national security adviser to the vice president from October 2014 to January 2017. said Business Insider.
“No US administration has had all the answers in the Middle East,” continued Kahl, who is now a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.
“But the two biggest sources of the ‘firestorm’ Gorka refers to were the invasion of Iraq, which gave birth to the forerunner of ISIS and created a vacuum filled by Iran,” and the Arab Spring of 2011 which shook the state system across the Middle East and sparked a series of bloody proxy wars, ”he added.“ None of these key events were a consequence of the Obama’s policy. ”
Kahl also cited specific achievements of the Obama administration, which included eroding al Qaeda leadership, securing the Iran nuclear deal, and preparing the ground for the destruction of ISIS.
Blaming Obama for the rise of ISIS has become a major Republican talking point since the US withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011.
Trump himself attributed the emergence of the group to Obama and Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s secretary of state and Trump’s opponent in the presidential election.
The withdrawal date was set by the Bush administration, but conservatives criticized Obama for failing to reach a deal with Baghdad to keep US troops on the ground, which they said could have prevented ISIS. to gain ground with the Sunni minority in Iraq.
Defenders have pointed to the United States’ inability to quell the insurgency in the country prior to its withdrawal, as well as the refusal of Iraqi officials to let US troops stay, as evidence that a prolonged deployment was impossible and would have changed little. . (Others attribute the appearance of ISIS to Bush’s dissolution of the Iraqi army.)
Since taking office, Trump appears to have adopted a more aggressive policy in the Middle East, underscored by several military engagements with pro-Syrian government forces there and by his warm adherence to Saudi Arabia to the apparent detriment of the United States. unity between the Gulf countries.
Kahl cited these developments as cause for concern for the future.
“It’s hard to see how Trump’s approach, which combines a shoot-first mentality and an instinct to give regional autocrats a blank check to drag us into their sectarian strife, will make the region safer or more secure. A safer America, ”he told Business Insider. in an email.
“And the fact that Gorka and others in the White House are seriously considering handing the longest American war in Afghanistan to private military contractors who prioritize profit over the national interest is very disturbing.”