Privatization might work in Afghan war, where UN platitudes have not

Privatization might work in Afghan war, where UN platitudes have not
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On Aug. 15 in Ghazni, Afghanistan, the death toll reached 150 for civilians killed over five days of fighting, in addition to government forces and Taliban fighters. That followed a suicide bombing on Aug. 3 in Gardez, about 50 miles south of Kabul, that killed 48 and injured 70 people during Friday prayers in a mosque, according to the United Nations. Days earlier, on July 31, in Jalalabad, 13 civilians were killed and 20 injured in an attack on the province’s Refugee Department, and on July 23 in Kabul, a suicide attack at the airport killed or injured civilians — a “senseless attack,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative for the country.

These are not isolated instances; they are a regular feature of life in Afghanistan. In 17 years since its involvement began, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion and sacrificed more than 2,400 troops’ lives, yet Afghanistan continues to be a canker on world peace.

Killings by the Taliban and other extremist groups show no signs of abating. According to the United Nations, between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, there were 1,692 civilian deaths, in addition to 3,430 injured, in Afghanistan. The number of civilian deaths was the highest recorded since 2009, although the number of those injured declined 5 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Of those killed, 157 were women and 363 were children; 992 children and 387 women were among those injured. Notably, suicide attacks have increased, accounting for most of the civilian deaths.


The United Nations continues to condemn “in the strongest terms, the heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks” — but these are empty words that mean nothing and have no effect on the ground. For example, after the Jalalabad attack, Yamamoto called attacks that deliberately target civilians “abhorrent,” saying, “The killings amount to atrocities, and everything must be done to bring the planners to account.” Days later, even bigger civilian killings followed in Ghazni and Gardez.

Amid those words from the United Nations, the Afghan government continues to make offers to negotiate with the Taliban, and periodic ceasefire offers. These initiatives — typically offered during festive periods such as the recent Eid-al-Adha holiday — are motivated by naïve hope, rather than any serious plan to end the conflict. And when hope substitutes for a plan, failure is inevitable — as evidenced by a three-day ceasefire in June at the end of Ramadan, when Taliban fighters were allowed to roam the streets only to return to their killing after a well-fed rest.

So, the United Nations’ pious words notwithstanding, it is time for a reset in Afghanistan.

That reset ought to include a rational analysis of privatization mooted by Blackwater’s Erik Prince. Crucially, this would end the disproportionate burden for securing Afghanistan currently placed on the American taxpayer. As Mr. Prince told the Independent, “The Taliban are not 10 feet tall; they can be beaten with the right tools, the right men. And it won’t be just Americans. These mentors could be from Britain, Australia, Canada, South Africa, anybody with a good rugby team.”

Mr. Prince referenced a controversial model for his plan — the East India Company — but noted, “I am not advocating colonization, of course; let’s leave aside the politics.” Given the East India Company’s regrettable record in the region, the analogy may not be apt. But setting that aside, greater engagement of private contractors and reduction of American involvement offers benefits.

The caveat is that any private contract would have to carry robust monitoring provisions to ensure that applicable laws are followed. In addition, strong oversight would be necessary to ensure that commercial considerations do not compromise long-term strategic goals. These include the destruction of the Taliban; elimination of al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups; eliminating Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban and the drug trade; and political stabilization of Afghanistan under a constitutional structure that guarantees minimum protections for women and minorities.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE reportedly is considering Prince’s proposal. Turning Afghanistan over to private military contractors is not as radical as it might appear: there already are about 30,000 contractors operating in Afghanistan. And U.S. troops have declined from a high of about 100,000 in 2011 to about 14,000 currently.

Afghanistan has been in a state of conflict since 1979. As the July 30 SIGAR report notes about lessons learned: “The U.S. government overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of the stabilization strategy,” and “under immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, and in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it. … The stabilization efforts ‘mostly failed.’”

America’s lack of success in Afghanistan is not surprising, given that it is a quicksand of competing foreign interests within a state of nature. It is time to try a different approach and place more responsibility on other actors, without sacrificing strategic interests. Privatization just might offer that vehicle.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.