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Paper Cuts: The American President and the Prince of War

Relentless war privateer Erik Prince won’t stop until he persuades President Trump to let him take charge of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
(Photo: The Miller Center / Wikimedia Commons; Illustration by POGO)

Even though President Trump has increased U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by as much as 90 percent since taking office, he is exasperated by the elusive nature of “victory” in America’s longest running hot war. It’s understandable: the quagmire that has bedeviled three presidential administrations with 17 years of U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces fighting Taliban insurgents has required “a massive international development effort involving 40 countries, and hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Enter Erik Prince, a wealthy, well-connected former Navy SEAL who has spent over two decades providing contracted security services and training for the U.S. government.  

Prince has made it clear to the Trump Administration he wants to lift the Afghan burden from the U.S. government and instead install an efficient corporate-style approach, supervised by Western upper level “mentor” managers and funded largely by extracting and trading Afghanistan's valuable mineral assets. It may only be a matter of time before the President decides to put the war—and the resources to fund it—in the hands of private interests.

It may only be a matter of time before the President decides to put the war in Afghanistan—and the resources to fund it—in the hands of private interests.

If it happens, it would be quite a coup.

Contracting under the company name Blackwater and smaller related companies, Prince’s businesses were awarded more than $1 billion in contracts for classified work for the CIA and for private security provided to the U.S. State Department in the early years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. However, a staggeringly violent incident in 2007 temporarily derailed the fortunes of this soldier of fortune. Blackwater contract employees, hired to protect American diplomats, in a tragic overreaction to a mistaken threat, killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a busy traffic circle in Baghdad. The resulting inquiries to seek justice for the victims lasted seven years and resulted in manslaughter convictions for three Blackwater employees and a murder conviction for a fourth (later overturned on appeal). The mercenary administrator was temporarily suspended from operating in Iraq, scolded by Congress, and warned against violations of human rights by the United Nations. Bloody but unbowed, Prince soldiered on by rebranding and then expanding his clientele internationally.

By 2010, Prince had contracted with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates to recruit and train 800 soldiers from Colombia and South Africa, among other countries, into a private army. In 2011 Prince contracted with Somalia to tackle piracy along its coast. And in 2014 his current corporate identity, the Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group, was hired to fly warplanes over South Sudan to protect its oil fields.

With the election of Donald Trump and the new incoming administration, Prince found a more favorable political environment in the United States. Prince was a friend of President Trump’s then-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and supported by President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Additionally, the billionaire businessman was a generous contributor to the President’s election campaign. (Coincidentally, Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is President Trump’s education secretary.)

During the transition, in January 2017, Prince reportedly acted as envoy for his UAE friends to offer the American President-elect a back-channel communication with Russian President Putin. The incoming Trump administration denied Prince was acting on its behalf. Prince was later interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators regarding those contacts, but his testimony has not been disclosed.

Months into his presidency, President Trump was urged by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to expand American troop levels in the Afghan war. Seeking alternatives to escalation, Bannon sought fresh ideas to resolve the conflict from private businessmen. With his connections, Prince was well-positioned to offer his advice.

According to a PowerPoint presentation he used in meetings with administration officials and shared with Politico, Prince argued that “Afghanistan is effectively in bankruptcy” and “The best way forward is analogous to a Chapter 11 reorganization,” a reference to U.S. bankruptcy law.

His presentation, passed among his friends in Congress, and presented to the President at Camp David, proposes a “strategic economy of force” in Afghanistan. Prince models his approach on the British East India Company’s 250-year Colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent—a private foreign company with military supremacy blessed by a distant government.

Prince calls Afghanistan “The Wollman Ice Rink Moment of the Trump Administration”—a reference to Mr. Trump’s high-profile fight in the 1980s with New York City’s then-mayor Ed Koch over a dilapidated ice rink in Central Park. The reference provides a clue to who the intended audience is for the presentation: the President himself. The city had struggled with cost overruns and a lack of progress while renovating the ice rink—a fact Mr. Trump repeatedly raised with Mayor Koch. Mr. Trump asserted he could fix the Central Park attraction faster and better with less money, and offered to turn it around on behalf of the city in exchange for the right to operate it. The Trump Organization successfully did so and operates the rink to this day.

Prince also penned a May 2017 Wall Street Journal opinion piece envisioning a presidentially appointed “American viceroy” to rule with absolute authority and responsibility overseeing “locally recruited and trained” Afghan forces, commanded by Western “professional soldiers,” who would “finish the job” started in 2001. These supervisory professionals would reside in-country and stay on the job indefinitely like overseas corporate managers.

He asserted that, instead of spending $45 billion a year in Afghanistan, his plan would only need “less than $10 billion” in taxpayer funds a year (recently lowered to $5 billion) due to a ”nimbler” “contracted force.” Prince told Military Times he anticipated 6,000 private soldiers supplemented by a smaller U.S. military Special Operations command of 2,000 troops to carry out “targeted strikes.”

Key to Prince’s strategy is to develop the war-torn country’s “long-term financial arteries [to] fund the fight.” Incredulous that after years of American presence and advice Afghanistan “still doesn’t have a mining law” Prince sees opportunity to make the occupation cost-effective with a “trade-centric approach” by extracting $1 trillion worth of “rare earth” minerals as assets. President George W. Bush saw the same potential when the war was launched but the buried treasure was not so easily unearthed. Prince proposes to “focus spending on initiatives that further the central strategy” by “placing combat power to cover Afghanistan’s economic arteries.”

Despite ethical and legislative obstacles—and the likelihood that NATO allies would pull out should the U.S. effort switch to using mercenaries—that preclude hiring Prince to take over our war in Afghanistan, Prince went to great lengths to convince the Trump administration about the merits of his plan. Another, more detailed, Prince PowerPoint pitch—later obtained by BuzzFeed News—focused on the bottom line value of Afghanistan’s un-mined “rare earth elements.”

Prince outlines the significant value of lithium, magnesite, talc, uranium, and other commodity deposits in Helmand ($1 trillion) and Nangarhar ($4.3 billion) provinces complete with strategies to overcome the challenges of gaining access to these fortunes.

For all his lobbying, neither McMaster nor Secretary Mattis was persuaded that turning the battle-weary republic over to a private contractor was a workable solution. Disappointingly for Prince, his privatization plan was rejected in August 2017. Soon after, the jilted contractor contributed a follow-up op-ed to The New York Times comparing his aspirational shadow army to the legendary Flying Tigers, and insisting “it is not too late to alter the course.”

Erik Prince is a patient man and plays a long game.

The war continues. McMaster has been replaced by the current National Security Advisor John Bolton, who replied to a question about Prince’s push that he is “always open to new ideas.” And although Secretary Mattis is still running Defense and remains dead set against Prince's plan, give it time. In a wide-ranging interview on 60 Minutes this month the President seemed unsure about the defense secretary's future in the administration. “He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave.”

In the meantime, the President told Reuters in August, “I’m not reviewing an Erik Prince plan.” Prince was still floating a cheeky updated version of his idea in Military Times in September, however, and despite opposition to Prince by the beleaguered Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the privateer turned up publicly in Kabul this month, introduced as a Trump advisor, reportedly making his pitch directly to influential Afghans ahead of the country’s presidential election in April.