24 August 2018

The Push to Privatize the Afghan War

Erik Prince

Blackwater Founder Erik Prince is making a renewed public push to privatize the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The current CEO and Founder of Frontier Services Group, (a security, aviation and logistics company primarily doing business in Africa) has reportedly gotten the attention of the President, despite the fact that current military officials are not said to be in favor. Speaking to ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton said “I’m always open to new ideas,” but put the ultimately decision squarely in the lap of the President. “I’m not going to comment on what the thinking is,” he told ABC. “That’ll ultimately be the president’s decision.” Prince’s latest effort comes as most analysts agree the security situation in Afghanistan is in a state of decline. There were multiple deadly attacks across the country last week, including intense fighting in the provincial capital of Ghazni and Afghan Commando Units, considered the elite of the Afghan Military reportedly suffered heavy losses.

Most of the country is considered to be under Taliban threat, as reported by a wide-range of organizations, including the BBC. Recently, a few former U.S. military leaders have spoken out about the U.S.-led status quo, including retired US Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc who said recently that “The current approach, in my opinion, is not worth another body bag or hospital bed”. Other former Generals say turning the country over to contractors would be a grave mistake.

The Cipher Brief’s Brad Christian spoke with Prince about what he thinks he can do that the U.S.-led effort hasn’t been able to accomplish to date. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Christian: I want to start by asking, what led to this proposal you’re putting forward?

Prince: I’m frustrated by the fact that we haven’t done any real introspection. We haven’t looked at what the fundamental problems are that we’ve never addressed. So, if you watched the video I made, called “A Better Solution for Afghanistan”, I tried to break down the three main problems. And while I’m not trying to address the entire Afghan political situation, I also know that military victories tend to drive diplomatic solutions. If you can stabilize much larger chunks of the country than are currently stabilized, and if you put the Taliban and Daesh (ISIS) on the defense, the U.S. will have a much higher chance of an acceptable political settlement.

Christian: So what are you proposing needs to be done first?

Prince: The first problem to address is evolving our mentorship model, specifically with ground mentors for the Afghan Army. In traditional SF parlance they say an A-Team (Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha) can build a battalion (of indigenous forces), so in my proposal, I went with basically a richer version of an A-team to increase Afghan capabilities in leadership, intelligence, communications, logistics and medical expertise. These are mentors who will be fully embedded, including in the field, with the Afghans. There are those who will say, “well that’s what the U.S. Military is currently doing”, to which I’d say ‘That is what U.S. SOF has done, and that’s why the Afghan Commando Units are one of the only effective units in the country’. But it’s not the approach the conventional U.S. Military has taken. Now, the U.S. Army is making an effort to do this with the Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFABs) but they are not living with, training with, and going with the troops wherever they go.

Christian: Speaking of the US Army’s SFAB Brigades, the first one has deployed, and we hear the Army has plans for, I think, 5 more. What are you hearing from the initial deployment of the Army’s SFAB units?

Prince: What I’ve heard is that those soldiers receive very little preparation and training. When you look at the amount of training that goes into a SEAL Platoon or A-team, before they deploy, that is not like anything the SFAB’s are getting. The level of training and cross training we take for granted in the SOF units, is not there in the SFAB’s. Now, if they start sending those soldiers to a one or two year immersive training program that could change, but it’s not there now.

One of the biggest deficits in the current approach, whether it’s U.S. SOF, U.S. Conventional or NATO, is that the military deploys a unit to Afghanistan and they spend maybe 8 months or a year in country. They spend the first two months getting to know the area, a few months being very productive, and the last couple of months making sure everybody goes home, packing up and leaving. And you lift that unit out, and send them home and send a brand new one in, that’s never been to that area before, and you repeat the cycle. We’ve done that now 30 times. With a contracted model, using the same type of military veterans, generally former SOF and Special Forces types, who have been in country a lot, we achieve maximum consistency by paying them to go in for 90 days, and home for 30, and back in for 90, and commit to multiple years doing that, with the same battalion, in the same valley. They learn everything about the area, including who the good mullahs and the bad mullahs are, chokepoints and the likely ambush areas. And in Afghanistan, fighting, just like politics, is local. So, when you put professional soldiers in as mentors, mentors who are going to make sure that the Afghan battalion is fed on time, paid on time, well supplied, well trained, receive Close Air Support (CAS) when they need it and have governance, this will result in dramatically improved capabilities. In this scenario, the mentor’s life depends on the Afghan unit’s success, and he’s not shipping out in two months never to see the Afghans again. This is his job for the foreseeable future, so he’s going to make sure that Afghan battalion is squared away. Also, when you have mentors attached to each of those units, you start to figure out who should be the Afghan NCO’s and Officers, and they are professionally promoted based on merit, not based on tribe, ethnicity or by how much they paid for that position, which is unfortunately an endemic problem among Afghan forces. So I take a very bottoms up approach, whereas the U.S. Army takes a top down approach. And I’m not claiming any great originality of this concept. What I’m basically doing here is expanding what U.S. SOF has done very effectively with the Afghan Commando units, and blanketing that across the entire Afghan Army. I envision approximately 60% U.S. and 40% NATO military veterans in terms of a mix, and they would come as individuals, not as whole national units, which would avoid the complete hodge-podge of country restrictions that afflicts that NATO mission there now. I want the experience of the SAS, SBS and 42 Commando for example, being shared and cross-pollinated with former U.S. Special Forces, SEALS and Marines, and Canadian SOF and other European SOF backgrounds. I want there to be an environment of tactical innovation that comes from having very experienced individuals who can outthink and out innovate the current enemy. All, of course under UCMJ, under a common ROE (Rules of Engagement) and with professional oversight. But, America has had the lead for over 17 years in Afghanistan, and we’ve proven unable to ‘close’. I think diversity could be our greatest strength here. The Taliban that have survived in Afghanistan for this entire time, they’ve learned exactly how the U.S. moves, how we target, how long it takes for CAS to show up, they know our playbook. I’m also not addressing the Afghan Police straight away, because I believe we have to defeat the conventional combat power of the Taliban, because when they can mass 200, 1000 or 3000 men to assault a target, that’s a problem. And, that’s a military level of intervention that is required. Once the Taliban, in certain areas, have been beaten down to size again, where they are operating in groups of 2, 4 or 6, then it becomes more of a policing problem. And then we can look at sending policemen to mentor the Afghan police, not soldiers. Having run a training facility that teaches both police and soldiers, it’s a fundamental difference in the approach from the use of force, collection of evidence, etc.

Christian: So for you, it’s about getting the right professional mentors, at scale, to improve the operational capabilities across the Afghan Military units as step one. What other issues does your proposal seek to address?

Prince: In terms of how we fight, one of the first things I learned in the SEAL teams is, ‘travel light, call in your might’. In very rugged terrain, when you’re operating against an enemy that can seamlessly move between combat to hiding amongst the population, you need to have small, maneuverable fast moving units. And just like after 9-11, we rapidly deployed SOF, sometimes on horseback, with a laser and a radio, to successfully call down CAS on the enemy, you have to have reliable close air support, which is the second main problem to address. When we hear endless stories, week after week of Afghan units getting surrounded, and slaughtered because they don’t get resupplied, or CAS, or even medivac and Afghan soldiers are dying from what should be non-life threatening wounds, we’ve got a major problem. And this is not a theoretical issue for me. In the Blackwater days, I had 26 or 28 aircraft in country, fixed and rotary wing. And so this is not that hard. The Afghan Air Force was not even conceptualized until 2007, has progressed relatively slowly, and is not where it needs to be. And yes, there are challenges in terms of recruiting and retention for the Afghan Air Force, with 90% of the country’s population illiterate, and those that do become trained pilots are often lured away to go work for an airline. Ok fine, accept the fact that we’re not going to have a really high functioning Afghan Air Force for a long time. So let’s put a cost effective patch in there to support Afghan Air Force capabilities, including CAS, Surveillance, Troop Mobility Lift and Medivac with mentors. You’d have a professional pilot on one side of the cockpit, and an Afghan on the other side. The weapons release authority and decision remains the sole discretion of the Afghan. So you won’t have an ex-Marine pilot from Arizona, dropping ordinance as a contractor, the Afghan pilot makes that decision. And the emphasis here I’m advocating for, is on relatively low-level altitude operations, supporting troops in contact, bases and FOB’s that are under attack, and the like with a 30 min response for CAS, anywhere in the country. This can be done, cost effectively and with dramatic improvements to Afghan Air Force capabilities.

The third main problem is governance support. There are seven corps in the Afghan Army, through which their supply flows. And that is the route of major corruption. The U.S. spends 5 billion dollars in the ANSF support fund (approximately). Food, fuel, parts and bullets. That is where you need to drop in some logistics controllers, some accountants and guys with clipboards to keep control of what is flowing thru there, and root out that corruption. And to make sure that when that Afghan Army battalion, or the mentors order batteries, and ammunition, and so fuel, that it actually arrives and it’s not lost, missing or stolen. So that takes care of a huge part of the supply deficiency. And it also works to address the issue of “ghost soldiers”. By implementing digital ID cards, connected to the Afghan soldier’s weapons and gear, which must be accounted for weekly by professional mentors, I bet you’d eliminate the majority of fraudulent payroll waste that goes to non-existent soldiers.

Christian: What would the roles of the U.S. Military, Intelligence Community and the Afghan Government be under your proposal?

Prince: This is the perfect situation for Title 50 authorities. It’s how the U.S. entered Afghanistan after 9-11. It’s why Title 50 authorities were created, to provide the widest flexibility to deal with a rapidly changing, unconventional situation. In terms of leadership, the President should appoint a Special Envoy, like a bankruptcy trustee, so he has one person a year from now to either fire, praise or counsel on how things are going in Afghanistan. He doesn’t have that right now. He’s got Mike Pompeo at State, he’s got Secretary Mattis at DOD, he’s got General Nicholson in country, he’s got the Station Chief and the Ambassador, etc. He needs to have one person handle Afghanistan, which is our first multi-generational war, and that person, if he’s sent with Title 50 authorities, gives him maximum flexibility on the ground to adapt to the situation. And, it would allow him to handle the Afghan theatre, and the Pakistan theatre. Because of course, Afghanistan is still malignly affected by Pakistani meddling, and the ISI. For all the talk last year about the U.S. government getting tough with Pakistan, it’s largely impossible. Why? Because the U.S. Military is totally dependent on logistics that travel overland through Pakistan. With a much smaller footprint that I’m advocating, you have greater logistical flexibility in terms of supplying Afghanistan.

Christian: You’ve mentioned Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Pakistan have had a historically complicated relationship, but obviously Pakistan is an important regional influence. What’s your sense, at the national level of Pakistan’s perspective on your proposal?

Prince: I think adapting the small footprint plan that I am advocating reduces Pakistan’s leverage. Also, the ISI is in many ways a government unto itself. Perhaps by weakening the ISI position in Afghanistan, we actually help the Pakistani government. But I think that shrinking our footprint improves our options relative to Pakistan.

Christian: So, you don’t necessarily expect that they will come to the table as a willing partner in your plan?

Prince: Well, I think if we’re not held hostage by them over logistics, our position improves, and the U.S. can apply many different types of pressure on them, that we’ve never really been able to before. And for all the talk of China investing in Pakistan, and becoming Pakistan’s new ally, and the China-Pakistan economic corridor, which is of strategic interest to China because, since China imports nearly all of their energy, they want to run pipelines from a water port, through Pakistan into Xinjiang Province, the impact is relatively small. The entire budget for the China-Pakistan economic corridor is something like $45 billion dollars over 8 years. The US will burn through that in 9 months in Afghanistan. So, the U.S. can use the carrot or stick with Pakistan, but we might need a little of the stick short term.

And speaking of economic development, in Afghanistan there are untapped resources in terms of minerals and mining that we cannot overlook. I know of three massive gas fields in the middle of Afghanistan that were drilled and capped by the Russians and never put into production. It’s amazing to me that the Soviet Union did a better job of developing the natural resources of Afghanistan, than we have. And that is an undisputed fact. And since last year, when I first introduced this proposal, we’ve looked into the black market for natural resources, and the millions of dollars that the Taliban and Daesh make from mining copper, gold, talc, marble some of the rare earth minerals, all of which are loaded up, trucked to Pakistan and sold off into the China trade. So, by mentoring an Afghan battalion in an area, removing the Taliban, and their unofficial taxing authority, and by stabilizing the security situation, we allow Afghan entrepreneurs access to operate. They contribute to the central Afghan government the appropriate share of taxes, and employ hundreds or thousands of local Afghans into a legitimate economy. And if you can provide an environment where capital investments are protected, people will, in turn, make more capital investments.

Back to your question- The role of the U.S. Intelligence community. By giving the Special Envoy Title 50, they have both maximum authority and maximum responsibility to the President. If you give them the authority and responsibility, you take away the excuses. The U.S. Military moves into a supporting role, where they can continue in their current roles of training and advising. The fact of the matter is that the current Afghan government controls about 30% of the country. There are so many areas we can choose from to implement the mentor model, without interfering with the current DOD mission. So we start, and stabilize some of the worst areas and then replicate those successes from there, eventually creating the conditions for U.S. forces to withdraw, leaving behind a mentored, capable and functioning ANSF.

Christian: Where where would you start?

Prince: In speaking with former high-ranking Afghan security officials, they point to Northern Kandahar province as an optimal starting point. From there, pushing west into Helmand Province, north into Uruzgan Province and then up into Nangahar province, are all options. Southern Helmand is obviously going to be the worst of the worst, and probably would have to be addressed after some of the other areas have been stabilized first.

Christian: And then obviously there’s the Afghan government. What role do they play?

Prince: I’ve heard from many friends in Afghanistan just how little confidence there is left for President Ghani. Whether the Afghans hold a Loya Jirga and appoint an interim government, or ensure that they have a free and fair election next year, that’s essential. But for me, and I’m not the politician, the diploma,t or the Special Envoy, and I’m not trying to be in any way, shape or form, but until that happens, those essential strategic and tactical decisions are made by that Special Envoy.

Christian: The White House announced that Steve Feinberg, the head of Cerberus Capital Management, has been named as the Chair of the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) and he was officially named Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) last May. Last year, you each had proposals involving elements of privatizing the Afghan war effort. Do you believe he still supports this concept?

Prince: I’ll say that in conversations a year ago, our thinking was largely aligned.

Christian: Any closing thoughts?

Prince: If the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan completely, it becomes a terrorist super state. The terrain is very conducive to small pockets of badness. The 9-11 attacks that were planned from there were funded on $500K cash. The illegal mining and drug trade nets the bad guys at least $600 million per year. And they killed 3,000 of our countrymen on 9-11, because they didn’t know how to kill 3 million. Today, Afghanistan is only about a 15-hour flight. So, it matters what happens on the other side of the world, and that there aren’t pockets of badness that go unchecked, and un-monitored by a responsible government. So, we need to figure out how to get this right. And spending more than the entire U.S. Department of Homeland Security budget, and more than the entire UK defense budget in Afghanistan is unsustainable. If America leaves, it will empower bad actors around the world.thecipherbrief.com

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