Blackwater founder Erik Prince says the Trump administration has been considering a plan he pitched to "privatize" the war in Afghanistan, an approach he claims could save the U.S. upwards of $30 billion a year.
Under the Prince plan, we would no longer have more than 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Instead, more than 5,000 private contractors, mostly Special Ops veterans, would advise Afghan forces. A private air force made up of 90 planes would replace U.S. air support. The cost would be $10 billion a year rather than the $40 billion we pay annually now.
"At what point do you say a conventional military approach in Afghanistan is not working?" Prince asked USA Today.
Opponents of the war have been asking that for more than a decade. But the deeper issue here isn't what kind of military approach Washington should take; it's what "working" means in the first place.
The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Afghanistan, passed in 2001, targeted the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and their "associated forces."
Yet the core of Al Qaeda, the terror group responsible for 9/11, has been defeated in Afghanistan. The Taliban government, which provided Al Qaeda with a safe haven, was toppled within weeks of the American invasion. For years, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been more a nation-building exercise than a counter-terrorism operation. The radical Islamist extremists most often currently targeted by U.S. forces don't bear much resemblance to the perpetrators of 9/11—an entire generation has passed.
Further, in 2001 Afghanistan was virtually the only safe haven for groups like Al Qaeda. Today such havens exist across the Muslim world. Most recently, U.S. forces have been sent to the Philippines to assist in the fight against ISIS there. (ISIS and Al Qaeda, for those keeping track at home, are bitter rivals.)
The debate over Afghanistan has largely centered on which "strategy" could be successful, but the fundamental problem is that success has never been clearly defined.
A proposal to privatize the fighting could spur Congress to renew the authorization for the war in less expansive terms. Ron Paul has suggested the use of letters of marque and reprisal, a constitutionally prescribed instrument, for counter-terrorism. This would authorize private individuals and organizations to go after Al Qaeda or other enemies of the country. Such letters offers a far narrower framework than an AUMF, and thus are less likely to fuel a virtually endless worldwide war against an ill-defined ideology (extremism) and tactic (terror).
According to USA Today, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis are skeptical of Prince's plan. They want Trump to order a surge in Afghanistan, something the president appears skeptical of. Congress has offered little input outside of "it's time to win," allowing a deleterious status quo to continue in Afghanistan.
Privatization sounds better than that. But if there's no reason to stay in Afghanistan in the first place, then there's no reason to privatize a war that shouldn't be continuing at all. End it, don't mend it.