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Contractors in Afghanistan: What Erik Prince Gets Right

Posted by Mark Cancian on

Contractor training Afghan troops

Eric Prince, the former CEO of Blackwater, argues for expanded use of contractors in Afghanistan. Some of his proposals deserve attention.

The idea apparently resonated with the White House (though not with Secretary of Defense Mattis) and has continued to get attention. Prince is widely regarded as the spawn of Satan because of the many controversies surrounding Blackwater’s conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, so commentators have lined up to criticize his proposals. Many of his proposals are, indeed, highly debatable, such as creating an army of contractors and establishing a viceroy.

But there are three policy points that Prince gets right, and these deserve more discussion:

  • creating long-term country expertise;
  • deep embedding with local security forces;
  • and reducing the conflict’s visibility to allow the US to play a long game. Shifting the balance of military personnel and contractors might help.

Mark Cancian

First, as Prince points out, the US needs, and has always lacked, people who stay on the ground for years and really know the turf. The Vietnam War had John Paul Vann, who spent seven years in theater and knew everyone. The Afghan War had Carter Malkasian. In two years working with Afghan leaders, he had enough time to understand their problems and win their trust. (Learning to speak the language also helped.) But these individuals were unique. The military has nothing comparable. Service members rotate quickly because long deployments stress the force and reduce retention, and few speak the language outside of a few foreign area officers. They stay in theater seven months to a year. Thus it is said that the US does not have 16 years of experience in Afghanistan; it has one year of experience 16 times.

Further, the military personnel system discourages building such expertise because such assignments would hurt careers.  Military personnel, particularly senior enlisted and officers, need to move through a set series of assignments to be competitive. Captains need to command companies, majors need to be operations officers, lieutenant colonels need to command battalions. Getting sidetracked by a long assignment outside established units makes individuals uncompetitive, irrespective of whatever guidance senior leaders might give promotion boards. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency does not even raise the possibility of such long tours. The military and counterinsurgency community understand this problem. Many commentators, from Tom Ricks to RAND have noted the need for such a cadre, but nothing has ever happened. (Creating roughly half-a-dozen regional regiments is a favorite cause of Breaking Defense’s editor.)

Marine Corps photo

Afghan non-commissioned officer training.

Contractors provide a different and much more flexible personnel system. They can hire people with the right qualifications, often prior military, and put them in place for extended periods because both sides know that that is the deal. They can leverage existing skills and do so without many of the constraints of the military system, like age or the need to retain for a 20-year career. Getting the right contractor into the right billet is not automatic, it takes effort, but the mechanism is there.

Second, creating viable Afghan security forces is the only way we’ll be able to pull our forces out without causing a collapse behind us. Long-term embeds down to the lowest levels, as Price suggests, might be the way to accomplish that. Our current approach of using generalists — however brave and well intentioned — who turn over rapidly is not working. Most Afghan units, outside of special forces, although fighting and dying, are not very effective. The U.S. Army is building regionally aligned security force assistance brigades to provide such capabilities, but that effort is just beginning.

hevalier Louis-William Desanges (1822-1887)

A British officer fights mutinying Indian soldiers in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857/

Prince points to the 19th century army of the East India Company as a model. That army failed, revolting in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. (In any case, creating a whole contractor army is highly debatable.) But the success of the successor British India Army of the Raj is undeniable. It maintained peace on the subcontinent and fought effectively in both World Wars. One reason the British were so successful with Indian forces was that many military personnel went native, integrated fully, learned the language, and took up local customs, including Indian dress. British officers and NCOs spent entire careers with Indian troops.  Deep acculturation also avoids the mirror imaging that Price, and many others, criticize; other militaries don’t need to be structured and equipped like the U.S. military.

Third, if the US really wants to play a long game in Afghanistan, it will need to reduce the war’s visibility. It’s hard to do that with large numbers of Americans wearing uniforms because servicemembers get so much attention, and DOD keeps pointing to them.

Continuous stories about deployments and stress on military personnel remind the public about the war. Thus, the political questions constantly arise: how are we doing and when will the war be over? On the other hand, one of the tenets of counterinsurgency is that it takes a long time and requires “strategic patience”. Some go on for decades. As FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, notes: “Counterinsurgency operations may demand considerable expenditures of time and resources…. The population must have confidence in the staying power of both the affected government and any counterinsurgency forces supporting it.”

In supporting the decades-long Colombian counterinsurgency, the US deployed no military units but instead used contractors extensively. As a result, the war stayed off the public’s radar, and the US was able to sustain a long-term effort that culminated in the 2016 peace agreement and, in effect, surrender of the insurgents. Yes, there is an element of cynicism in substituting contractors for military personnel and capitalizing on the public’s lack of interest in contractors, but the world is what it is and decision-makers must deal with it. Reduced visibility is something every White House looks for, and this White House (like the two previous administrations) is anxious to avoid an endless war.

The US already has a lot of contractors in Afghanistan — 26,000 according to the most recent report — of whom 9,500 are Americans. Two-thirds perform base functions like logistics and communications support, 13 percent are in security, only 3 percent in training.  Using contractors is not an either-or proposition, but a question of changing the manpower mix.

DoD photo

Texas National Guard soldiers in Afghanistan.

If the US were to rely more on contractors, it should apply the painful lessons learned of the last two decades. The early years of the Iraq war were marred by extensive abuses. Although contractors were generally effective, government contracting organizations were overwhelmed and unable to provide the oversight necessary. As a result, many safeguards are now in place, from a beefed-up contingency contracting capability, to regulations holding contractors accountable to military authorities, to doctrine on how to employ contractors.

Prince proposes that the Afghan government employ contractors, which, among other effects, gets around prohibitions on contractors performing “inherently governmental functions” that exist in US law. However, the Afghan government is almost certainly unable to efficiently and effectively exercise control over this much money and capability. The U.S. would need to be in charge.

So we should take these points seriously, even if some of Prince’s other recommendations are debatable, and many people don’t like his past. Yes, the military personnel system might be changed to accomplish some of these goals, but changes during 16 years of war have been modest, so there is no reason to believe that major shifts are near. Maybe a different manpower balance could do better. 

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