Outsourcing the War in Afghanistan Is an Awful Idea

An Afghan security forces member leaves the site of an attack on the Iraqi embassy after a battle in Kabul

Erik Prince wants nothing less than to create a parallel foreign-policy structure and military hierarchy that exist outside official channels.

There are no good options on Afghanistan. Experts disagree on whether the current or potential future terrorist threat justifies continuing to spend American blood and treasure in the war-torn country where the Taliban is going from strength-to-strength. The strategy developed to turn things around, which includes increasing the number of U.S. forces by several thousand, is far from perfect. Aggressively pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban or simply playing for time are also unappealing options. As bad as these and other possible options are, however, one is far worse: hiring mercenaries to do the job of U.S. troops.

There are currently 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Approximately two thousand of them conduct counterterrorism operations against Islamic State militants and other international terrorists. The rest are assigned to the Operation Resolute Support, where they—along with another approximately six thousand troops from other countries—train, advise and assist Afghan forces fighting against the Taliban. The United States already outsources many support missions in Afghanistan. Now, Blackwater founder Erik Prince and DynCorp International owner Stephen A. Feinberg have concocted a plan for 5,500 private contractors to take over the train, advise and assist mission. According to Prince, the plan would also include a ninety-plane private air force to provide air support to Afghan forces.

The Pentagon hates the plan. So do heavy-hitters on the Hill, like Sen. Lindsay Graham, who has pledged to fight Trump at every turn if he endorses the proposal. National Security Advisor McMaster is not a fan either. So why is Prince’s idea still getting a hearing? Two reasons. First, Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, is chummy with Prince and likes his proposal. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is enamored with the idea as well, according to USA Today. Second, the president appears desperate to avoid any strategy that even vaguely resembles Obama’s approach to Afghanistan. For all the ways in which he likes to live dangerously, Trump also seems reluctant to accept the risks that come with making a decision about what to do in the war-torn country. Out-of-the-box thinking about Afghanistan is welcome, but this plan never should have gotten to the president’s desk.

One of Prince’s main selling points is that contractors are cheaper than U.S. troops. The United States could save money while continuing to support the war effort against the Taliban, or so the argument goes. Contractors do not enjoy the same support systems as U.S. troops and so they cost less on paper. However, without proper oversight, which would be almost impossible to conduct from afar, the government would not be able to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. At best, outsourcing the war effort would save some money. But there are other costs that would be damaging to U.S. interests.

There is no reason to think a contracted force would be any more effective than the current Operation Resolute Support and plenty of reasons why it likely would be worse. As my colleague Phil Carter observed, the evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq indicates that contractors fared no better than troops when it came to advising foreign forces. However, because they operate outside of the military chain of command, it is much harder to hold them accountable. Firing a military officer ends his or her career. A contractor who is let go can move on to another private-security company. That’s the nature of being a mercenary.

It gets worse. Research tells us that turning contractors loose in a failing state like Afghanistan is a recipe for greater and more indiscriminate violence that could benefit the Taliban-led insurgency. Because the United States is prohibited by law from employing contractors to serve in a military combat role Prince wants to place them under Title 50, which governs classified operations. This would make it much more difficult to hold accountable any contractors who commit crimes and seriously hamper congressional oversight.