Erik Prince hopeful Bolton more open to contractors for Afghan war

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Erik Prince

Blackwater founder Erik Prince is hopeful new leadership in President Trump’s national security team will give his plan to replace most U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors a shot at becoming reality.

In an interview with The Hill, Prince pointed to national security adviser John Bolton’s comments Sunday about being “open to new ideas” as a sign Bolton’s thinking may differ from his predecessor, now-retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.


“Look, Gen. McMaster was a three-star serving Army officer who really wanted to be a four-star Army officer, and so the idea of him embracing anything unconventional is absolutely impossible,” Prince said Monday during the phone interview. “That being said, with John Bolton there now, I don’t know that he’s vested in a very conventional Pentagon approach. Maybe he’s willing — supposedly yesterday on the midday news shows he said he was open to exploring options for a solution in Afghanistan.”

Prince said he has not spoken to Trump about his plan recently but that he knows “it’s on his mind.”

“Before we go headlong into another year of the same failed strategy, I think it’s important that the president know that there are different options,” Prince added.

The Hill has reached out to the National Security Council for comment.

A year ago Tuesday, Trump announced his strategy for the war in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year. He took away a timeline for withdrawal, added thousands more troops and loosened some rules of engagement.

At the time, Prince, now the head of Frontier Resource Group, tried to sell Trump on a plan to replace conventional U.S. forces with private contractors. His plan included sending 5,500 private military contractors to embed with Afghan forces at the battalion level. They would be supported by a 90-plane private air force. A “viceroy” would be appointed to oversee the endeavor.

The plan was championed by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, but was opposed by McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, key leaders in Congress and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The United States now has about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In the year since Trump announced his strategy, the Taliban have continued to carry out high-profile attacks and the Afghan government’s control of the country has remained largely unchanged. The government controls about 65 percent of the Afghan population, with 12 percent under Taliban influence and 23 percent in contested areas, according to the latest inspector general report, released Monday.

U.S. and Afghan forces also engaged in a fierce fight in recent weeks to prevent the Taliban from taking control of the key provincial capital of Ghazni.

Still, hopes were raised for a breakthrough earlier this year when the Taliban agreed to a three-day ceasefire. U.S. officials have also reportedly met in secret with Taliban representatives in Qatar.

Asked Friday about comments Prince made to NBC that Trump is frustrated with the war effort, Mattis was dismissive.

“I have never had that feeling from the president,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him back to Washington, D.C., from South America.

Bolton, though, expressed an openness to replacing troops with contractors in an interview with ABC on Sunday, though he said it’s ultimately Trump’s decision.

“I’m always open to new ideas,” Bolton said. “But I’m not going to comment on what the thinking is. That’ll ultimately be the president’s decision.”

On Monday, Prince said that openness is how a National Security Council should work.

“That absolutely should be the policy of any NSC, is to give the president a wide range of options,” he said. “And last year, the NSC only said more money, more troops, the same thing we’ve been doing, or pull out completely.”

Asked about Mattis’s dismissiveness, Prince said he “would encourage anyone to look at the metrics.”

“At what point do we say let’s try something different?” Prince said. 

Prince was also hopeful the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan may be amenable to his plan. Lt. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of Joint Special Operations Command since 2016, was confirmed by the Senate in June to command of the Afghanistan war. He is expected to officially replace outgoing commander Gen. John Nicholson soon.

“He comes from the right community, from a special operations background,” Prince said of Miller. “And so I think he’s willing to think differently how to make this work, and he saw people from his unit and his background were key roles in making it the first time in 2001 and so hopefully — I’ve never met him or spoken to him, but I certainly hope that that’s on his mind.”

Tags Donald Trump James Mattis

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