Faced with opposition, Erik Prince shops his plan for Afghanistan

Faced with opposition, Erik Prince shops his plan for Afghanistan

Erik Prince isn’t giving up.

A year after the Trump administration rejected the Blackwater founder’s plan to replace most U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors — an idea roundly criticized by the defense and foreign policy establishment — he’s back trying to sell his plan to President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE.

He hasn’t talked to Trump about the idea recently, he admits. But he’s been making the rounds in the media, including an appearance on Trump’s favorite television show, “Fox & Friends,” talking up his plan as a way to end the stagnation of the 17-year-old war.

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“The president was right to campaign against endless wars,” Prince said in a recent telephone interview with The Hill. “Before we go headlong into another year of the same failed strategy, I think it’s important for the president to know that there are different options.”

And while few, if any, defense officials, lawmakers and experts think Prince’s plan would work, there’s a nagging concern that Trump, who revels in bucking the establishment, just might give it a shot.

“We have to take this seriously because the commander in chief might take it seriously, and if the only logic is that everything else we have tried has failed so anything can work in the future, that’s an absurd logic,” said Sean McFate, a former mercenary who now writes about and studies the subject.

A year ago Tuesday, Trump announced his strategy to turn around the war in Afghanistan, which top generals had been warning was a stalemate at best.

His changes included taking away a timeline for withdrawal, adding thousands more troops, loosening some rules of engagement and putting more pressure on regional players such as Pakistan.

In doing so, Trump acknowledged he was going against his instinct, which was to withdraw altogether.

Today, the U.S. 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 (ISIS).

Top U.S. officials have insisted the strategy is working, pointing to a three-day ceasefire earlier this year and “off stage” talks with elements of the Taliban.

“I believe the strategy is working,” Gen. John Nicholson said Tuesday in his final briefing to Pentagon reporters before he’s set to hand over command of the war in the coming weeks.

“The progress towards reconciliation, which ultimately is what we want, a political end to the war — which will enable a political end to the war — is perhaps one of the greatest successes of the strategy so far,” Nicholson said. “Now, there will be ups and downs, there will be leap-aheads, there'll be frustrations, there'll be, you know, two steps forward, one step back from time to time, but the process is started.”

But other metrics tell a different story.

Insurgents have continued to launch high-profile attacks, including an ISIS-claimed rocket attack Tuesday against a heavily fortified area of Kabul while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was giving a televised speech to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Control of territory has also remained largely unchanged: 65 percent of Afghans live in areas under government control, while 12 percent live under the Taliban and 23 percent in contested areas, according to Monday’s latest quarterly inspector general report on the mission.

In trying to sell his plan, Prince pointed to these and other signs of a floundering strategy.

“I think any objective observer can see the Pentagon approach has not worked and will not work, and it’s time to do something different, to go to a more unconventional approach,” Prince said. “When the Pentagon has lost more terrain, more people, thousands of Afghans dying — I think the first six months of this year, the U.N. reported is the highest number of civilians killed in the duration of the entire war — so by any metric, you can say that the strategy is not working.”

Prince’s former company, Blackwater, became infamous in 2007 when its guards killed 17 civilians and injured 20 in Baghdad's Nisour Square. Three guards were convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, while an appeals court tossed a first-degree murder conviction for a fourth.

Prince now heads private security firm Frontier Services Group.

Prince’s plan for Afghanistan would entail replacing conventional U.S. forces with private contractors, while U.S. special forces would stay in Afghanistan. His plan includes sending 5,500 private military contractors to embed with Afghan forces at the battalion level, to be supported by a 90-plane private air force. A “viceroy” would be appointed to oversee the endeavor.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon championed the plan before he was ousted. But it was opposed by former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump returns to UN praising Kim | Iran in crosshairs later this week | US warns Russia on missile defense in Syria Bolton: Russian missile system sale to Syria a 'significant escalation' Overnight Defense: Trump identifies first soldier remains from North Korea | New cyber strategy lets US go on offense | Army chief downplays talk of 'Fort Trump' MORE, key leaders in Congress and Ghani.

McFate called the idea a “train wreck,” saying it reminds him of an episode of “South Park” where the main characters meet gnomes trying to make money with a three-step process in which the second step is a question mark.

“What can a handful of mercenaries on a shoestring budget accomplish that the U.S. military and billions of dollars and 10 years — or more like 15 years — have not?” McFate said. “What’s the secret sauce? He doesn’t explain it.”

McFate said he thinks it’s “astounding” Prince is still shopping the plan a year later, noting the only thing that’s changed since the administration rejected it is the replacement of McMaster with John Bolton.

“I cannot see Bolton going for the mercenary option,” he said.

Prince, though, said he is hopeful about Bolton, highlighting comments Bolton made to ABC News about being “open to new ideas.”

“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. “That being said, with John Bolton there now, I don’t know that he’s vested in a very conventional Pentagon approach.”

Trump said Monday that he is “constantly reviewing” Afghanistan, but is not considering the plan from Prince, whose sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosColleges, universities seeing rise in sexual assault claims, lawsuits Support for educational choice continues to grow Stand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges MORE.

“I’m constantly reviewing Afghanistan and the whole Middle East,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters. “We never should have been in the Middle East. It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country.”

But, he added, “I’m not reviewing an Erik Prince plan.”

Many members of Congress also have yet to be convinced. For example, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week Press: Judge Kavanaugh must withdraw Kavanaugh: 'I will not be intimidated into withdrawing' MORE (R-S.C.) said this week that the idea was “terrible.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday he met with Prince a year ago to discuss his Afghanistan plan and found it “interesting.” He declined to elaborate further in the hallway of the Senate basement, saying he wanted to think about his answer more.

Even with stiff opposition, Prince persists, brushing off questions of accountability and why contractors would fare better than U.S. service members.

On accountability, he pivoted to the Pentagon needing to be accountable for its actions.

“That’s a really false argument,” Prince said when asked about concerns private forces won’t be as accountable as U.S. troops. “We’ve generated the structure with really smart military lawyers that the mentors or the pilots or whoever’s there can be held accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so if they commit an evil act in country, they will be dealt with under a military judicial system right there in country.

“And I understand people’s concern about accountability for contractors, but who is holding the Pentagon accountable for 17 years and a trillion, going on $2 trillion? I think accountability is wonderful, but let’s have it for the Pentagon and their plan and their execution of it as well. It goes both ways.”

On why contractors would do a better job than U.S. troops, he argued the military’s rotation policy makes it impossible for U.S. service members to make progress in the country.

His forces would still rotate in and out of the country, he said, but “they’ll have a multiyear contract to go back to the same unit in the same valley, and they learn that terrain, and they build that bond, that confidence with the Afghans.”

James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who called Prince a “good friend,” commended Prince for challenging convention and said parts of the plan are workable.

“If you’re selling umbrellas you stand in front of the Metro station when it’s raining. So if you want to sell doing something different in Afghanistan, you do that when everybody’s paying attention to Afghanistan,” Carafano said of Prince’s media blitz.

But, Carafano added, outsourcing everything is “just not realistic” and “Congress would never fund it.”

“I don’t think there’s any momentum in this administration to outsource the war in Afghanistan to somebody,” continued Carafano, who served on Trump’s transition team.

Still, Prince is holding out hope. 

Trump “was close to making a decision in our favor last year,” Prince said. “And I know from at least three different data points in the weeks and months after he made that decision that he was reluctant about that decision. And so now that the anniversary is coming up yet again … the question is does he default to the same failed policies of the last 17 years, or does he exercise civilian leadership of the military and go to a sustainable path?”