Erik Prince bids for privatising Afghanistan war
Sitting in the Kabul studio of TOLO TV, Prince said he could change the course of the United States' longest-running foreign war within six months.
It was a remarkable claim for a war that has seen 40 nations, including the United States, struggling to push back against the Taliban as the militant group continue to gain influence over ever-larger swathes of the Afghan nation, and while civilian casualties continue to reach new heights.
The 22-minute interview with the founder of the "private military contract services" firm Academi - formerly known as Blackwater during its infamous years of operations in Iraq - immediately caught the attention of high-level officials in the presidential palace and more than 20 civil society figures. All were reportedly shocked not only by Prince's proposal to deploy 3,600 "contracted veteran mentors" from his private security firm now known as Frontier Services, but by his presence in the Afghan capital.
|In 2017, he was alone trying to sell the country on his plan, but this time he seems to have a whole lobbying effort behind him|
Last month's interview was Prince's second appearance on TOLO in less than a year. In his 2017 interview, Prince was speaking from Abu Dhabi, where he is understood to live part-time.
One high-level government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the most recent interview was particularly disturbing because it showed that Prince "was being given a platform" in Afghanistan.
This was precisely what worried the members of civil society as well.
One civil society activist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said it seemed to be part of a much larger play by Prince, a former US Navy SEAL:
"In 2017, he was alone trying to sell the country on his plan, but this time he seems to have a whole lobbying effort behind him."
Before his arrival in Kabul, Prince had a meeting with prominent "former government officials and warlords" that seemed amenable to his cause, alleged the activist. Prince met these "strongmen" in Dubai, the activist claimed, saying they were "looking out for themselves and would ally with anyone, including him, for power".
If true, this would indicate that Prince is taking a more strategic approach to his bid for privatised war this time around.
Prince's efforts to woo Afghan support dates back at least a year. A second source who also wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals told The New Arab she was at a dinner with a major US political donor in New York, when she witnessed a prominent Afghan businessman, also a guest of the donor, evangelising for Prince.
"I was shocked to see this man that so many people respect in Afghanistan working so hard to sell Erik Prince and his plan."
|I was shocked to see this man that so many people respect in Afghanistan working so hard to sell Erik Prince and his plan... It just showed how much Erik Prince is trying to court the Afghans|
Because the donor was allied with the Democratic Party, the source said she had little faith the businessman's boosting of Prince would gain much traction, nevertheless, she was taken aback by the fact that it happened at all.
"It just showed how much Erik Prince is trying to court the Afghans."
For its part, the national unity government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, has come out in vehement opposition to Prince's proposal.
Speaking at an event in Kabul, the president said: "The work which is done by Afghans cannot be done by any foreign mercenary. Foreign mercenaries will never be allowed on this soil."
What angered Kabul, said the government official, was that Prince had come to "interfere on matters of national security", which would constitute a clear violation of the terms of his Abdu Dhabi-issued tourist visa.
Last Thursday, the Afghan National Security Council issued a strongly worded statement rejecting any proposals for the privatisation of the Afghan war.
"Under no circumstances will the Afghan government and people allow the counter-terrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business… As a sovereign nation, we will consider all legal options against those who try to privatise war on our land."
Later that same day, Kabul declared Prince had been designated persona non grata in Afghanistan, formally notifying all embassies in the country - an action the official said they do not take lightly.
|What angered Kabul was that Prince had come to 'interfere on matters of national security', which would constitute a clear violation of the terms of his Abdu Dhabi-issed tourist visa|
"We didn't want people to think the Afghan government was making secret deals about the security of the country," said the official.
A second government source said the president was so angered by Prince's apparent disregard for Afghan sovereignty that he was looking to lodge a formal complaint with Washington for what amounts to Prince's "interfering in internal government affairs". Prince is the brother of controversial US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Though the unity government has essentially shut down any possibility of allowing for the war to be privatised, activists The New Arab spoke to said the upcoming presidential elections, slated for April, could mean that Prince may not have to wait too long to try and re-sell his proposal.
"This government only has five or six months left. The fear is that whatever comes in its place could agree to Prince's terms," said the civil society activist.
He referred to the unity government's signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States - which allowed for thousands of US troops to remain in the country - after former President Hamid Karzai refused, as an example of how quickly things can change from one administration to another.
"There are enough strongmen and leaders in this country who want to destroy the Taliban at any cost, who would agree to Prince's conditions," said the activist.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Prince has now moved on to DC, where he is trying to sell Trump administration officials on his plan, and a part of that new pitch is likely to be a potential change of leadership in Kabul.
Prince's efforts in Washington are also worrying for Afghan activists, who fear that Donald Trump, who has already expressed his disregard for the Afghan war on several occasions over the years, could be swayed by Prince's mathematics.
Since their invasion in October 2001, the United States has spent in excess of $753 billion on the Afghan war. Prince claims he can bring the remaining cost down to $5.5 billion.
|Since their invasion in October 2001, the United States has spent in excess of $753 billion on the Afghan war|
"Trump is a businessman, not a humanitarian, obviously any way to save money would appeal to him," said the civil society activist.
But in Afghanistan, people remain wary of promises made by a man who "makes money from war".
Referring to Prince's claim that he could bring a major shift to the trajectory of the Afghan war in a matter of months, the source said: "He sounds like a street magician in Kabul."
What worries civil society activists is that Afghanistan has had a "dreadful experience" with militias in the past.
This includes disappearances and torture by irregular Afghan forces - who did not fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defence or interior - working with US Special Forces in the Eastern province of Maidan Wardak. In the north of the country, militias have been accused of everything from land-grabbing, robberies, forced marriage and involvement in the narcotics trade.
The fear is that Prince's proposal would likely re-embolden these types of militias.
Patricia Gossman, the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, agrees.
"Up to now, the Afghan government has been unwilling to investigate serious international humanitarian law violations and hold security forces accountable," she said.
Gossman said the lack of accountability for government-allied militias, local Afghan police and the Afghan National Security Forces, including forces "who have long worked with the CIA" had alienated local communities, which has in turn undermined governance efforts and led to an increase in support for groups such as the Taliban.
Activists and rights defenders are equally troubled by Prince's proposal to establish what amounts to a private air force in Afghanistan. This air force would reportedly consist of everything from fixed-wing planes, attack helicopters and drones.
This is especially troubling given a September report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that 149 civilians were killed in pro-government airstrikes over the first six months of 2018. That figure represents a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.
Prince's own forces, under the banner of his former company, Blackwater, have already faced repeated accusations of killing civilians in Iraq.
The most famous was the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre, which saw Blackwater operatives open fire on Iraqi civilians at a busy Baghdad roundabout. That incident led to the deaths of at least 17 civilians and the banning of the company from operating in Iraq.
With Prince reportedly continuing his efforts to woo support for his privatisation plan, the civil society activist fears that it will once again be Afghan civilians who pay the price.
"Sadly, many Afghans don't know Erik Prince's history," said the activist. "Our media gives him airtime, but does little to inform our people about who he is and what his company has been accused of."
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye