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Erik Prince thinks he's the Elon Musk of privatized warfare

by Alexa Liautaud
Sep 1 2017, 7:56am

Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince compared his goal of privatizing the war in Afghanistan to Elon Musk’s privatization of space transport, in his latest public attempt to glamorize his call for more contractors and denigrate the competency of the standing U.S. military.

But the response of one former military contractor, now professor of strategy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, cut to the core of Prince’s proposal.

“[SpaceX founder] Elon Musk does not kill people for money,” Sean McFate responded in an article for Politico Magazine after Prince’s op-ed in the New York Times.

“As a former military contractor,” McFate said, “I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries.”

Emboldened by a business-oriented Trump administration, Prince has been touring the media circuit trumpeting the idea that “contractors, not troops, will save the war in Afghanistan.” He has bashed National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as well as the competency of longstanding commanders and generals, arguing that a “viceroy” is needed to oversee all of the military command and that the last 16 years of American leadership in Afghanistan have been “a joke.”

But lawmakers, defense experts, and private contractors themselves are wary of his plan, to say the least, not just because Prince would personally benefit from the billion-dollar contracts but because of such contractors’ past experiences.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, three Blackwater employees allegedly killed 14 civilians in Iraq in what became known as the Nisour Square Massacre. Their convictions were just recently thrown out and they’ll be given a new trial, but the murders, according to one unnamed Iraqi official, are “still raw after all these years” and the liability of private security firms in traditional war zones remains murky.

Though those Blackwater men were just a sliver of the 30,000 or so private Defense Department contractors in the country in 2007, the struggle to make gains in the uphill war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the legal implications of using private security firms came under fire, similar to today.

“I’m sure that Erik Prince is seeking to end U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, but he’s also promoting a business opportunity that he hopes to cash in on,” Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, told VICE News.

“The end goal is on point, but let’s avoid a foreign policy disaster of allowing hired guns to run around Afghanistan and the damaging consequences and costs of asking U.S. taxpayers to fund such an operation,” he later added.

Micah Zenko, a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Thursday, “Erik Prince omits that his allegedly new idea of using contractors to ‘save’ Afghanistan was tried for the past decade.”

Deborah Avant, director of the University of Denver’s Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, wrote in the Washington Post in July that Prince’s plan is “not just unlikely to improve the United States’ ability to conduct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan; it reflects an entirely different [set] of U.S. goals. Instead of an — albeit flawed — policy aimed at building a legitimate government willing to be part of the international community, this plan aims only to secure resources (and it is not even clear for whom).”

But Prince has responded to the widespread skepticism over his plans by boasting his alliance with the Trump administration. (His sister is Dept. of Education chief Betsy DeVos.)

“I still have high hopes that as a businessman who has restructured problematic or failing efforts, that [the president] still going to come to the right conclusion on this,” Prince told the Huffington Post.

Trump last week announced an additional 4,000 troops would be deployed to Afghanistan as part of his new strategy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Thursday he had signed deployment orders but that some aspects of the policy were not yet complete.

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Afghanistan
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