Mercenaries for Afghanistan?

Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?
Blackwater’s Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?


The Trump administration is bandying about the idea of hiring a mercenary army to conquer and pacify Afghanistan on behalf of the United States.

Sounds like a cockamamie idea, but no, the drafters of the plan and the White House officials (Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner) shopping it around are absolutely serious. As Sean McFate, himself a former mercenary (more politely referred to as a private military contractor) writes at The Atlantic:

Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Prince, the brother of Trump cabinet member Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, apparently envisions himself in the role of Viceroy of Afghanistan, concentrating power in his own hands while cutting those meddlesome bureaucrats and politicians back in Washington out of the picture.

As Prince acknowledged in an interview with NPR, the proposal is modeled on the British East India Company, whose private army made possible the imperial conquest of India and then for centuries controlled and exploited it on behalf of the crown. Except, as McFate points out, when the British government had to bail the company out of financial ruin in 1770 and then take over for it entirely in 1874.

As McFate points out, there are obvious pitfalls in turning to mercenaries to solve your military problems. The key one, of course, is that their loyalty is for sale to the highest bidder. So what happens when your rivals offer them a better contract?

This would be little more than garden-variety crazy for this administration except that it comes at a time when President Trump is reportedly angry and frustrated about the what he sees as the failure of his advisers to craft a strategy for “winning” in Afghanistan. As NBC News reported a few days ago, the president’s ire spilled out in classically Trumpian style:

Over nearly two hours in the situation room … Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder some in the president’s inner circle, and perhaps Trump himself, might be keen to outsource the Afghan war and subsequent occupation.

Outsourcing is, of course, old hat to a business guy like Trump. And using mercenaries instead of American troops would also allow the president to indulge in one of his favorite business practices: stiffing the contractors.

Madam President’s foreign policy: US-Russia relations


This is the first of what will be several posts over the next week or two speculating on what might have been different for US foreign policy and international affairs had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. This first piece focuses on US-Russia relations. 

After 188 days of the Trump presidency and counting, we have a pretty good idea of what his foreign policy is like. Simply put, it ain’t pretty

But what would foreign policy have looked like with Hillary Clinton in the White House? At least one analyst suggests it might not have been all that different. Let me suggest otherwise.

It is also true, however, that some developments would have unfolded more or less in the same way that they have under President Trump. Any American president has only limited influence on the ebb and flow of global relations, and so some problems which we might be tempted to lay at Trump’s feet likely would have happened anyway, regardless of who is in the White House. I’m looking at you, North Korea.

With that disclaimer in place, here we go:

Given the unfolding revelations of the extent of Russian efforts to tip the 2016 election to Donald Trump, US-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Russian Ambassador Sergy Kislyak, who was accused of coordinating secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives, announced his retirement and immediate return to Moscow. The Clinton Administration had privately warned the Kremlin that Kislyak and other Russian diplomats would be formally expelled if Kislyak did not voluntarily step down.

Clinton has also warned that the United States will not hesitate to retaliate should Moscow attempt to undermine the 2018 midterm elections.

The Justice Department has announced the creation of a special task force targeting suspected Russian money laundering operations involving real estate transactions in New York and south Florida. The task force is headed up by New York US Attorney Preet Bharra.

Sanctions against Russia put in place by the Obama Administration immediately after the election remain in place, and President Clinton has vowed to impose even tougher sanctions, though she faces opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress which accuses her of targeting Russia and the former Trump campaign to distract attention from new congressional investigations into the Clinton Foundation’s ties to foreign interests and her handling of classified information as Secretary of State.

The Putin government has responded by expelling 30 US diplomats, closing the offices of American news agencies, expelling US journalists, and intensifying a crackdown on civil society, pro-democracy, and human rights organizations which the Kremlin accuse of serving as agents of Western provocation. It has also openly increased its support for and assistance to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Large-scale Russian military exercises in Belarus have been scheduled for September and, given Moscow’s tendency to “train exactly as they intend to fight,” are widely understood to be a dry run for military action against NATO.

The Kremlin has also ended all cooperation with and coordination between Russian military forces supporting the Assad regime in Syria and US forces supporting anti-Assad groups fighting ISIS, warning the United States that it would not be responsible for any “mishaps” that could occur between US and Russian forces operating in the Syrian battlespace.

At the NATO summit in May, President Clinton reiterated America’s commitment to the alliance and the principle of collective security expressed in Article 5 of the NATO Charter. She was responding both to criticism that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently forceful in standing for the defense of Europe, and seeking to calm fears raised in Europe by a presidential campaign in which NATO often served as Donald Trump’s punching bag.

In a tough speech at the dedication of the 9/11 and Article 5 Memorials at NATO headquarters, Clinton warned Putin against engaging in “dangerous military adventurism” in the Baltic States or Central Europe, proclaiming: “There will be no more Crimeas on my watch.”

Clinton also announced what she called “Cyber Article 5,” declaring that the principle of collective security must extend to the cyber arena. She called on NATO to expand the capabilities and scope of responsibilities of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, stating that cyber intrusion or interference in the electoral systems or democratic process in any NATO member must be met with combined cyber countermeasures from the rest of the alliance.

At the G-20 summit meeting earlier this month in Hamburg, Clinton joined 18 other heads of state, dubbed the G-19 by the news media, in issuing a joint declaration denouncing interference in the domestic politics of any democratic state. Russian President Putin conspicuously declined to attach his name to the statement.

To summarize, under President Clinton relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in decades. Putin’s longstanding hatred of Clinton, coupled with her administration’s forceful response to Russian efforts to elect Donald Trump, have set in motion a 21st century Cold War.

¹The hyperlink will take you to a special issue of Foreign Affairs with links to a series of articles by highly regarded foreign policy analysts and scholars. The title of the project, “Present at the Destruction,” gives you some advance idea of what you’ll read there.

$444,444 per body


That’s the base price American taxpayers shelled out for each of the reported 36 ISIS-affiliated fighters killed in Afghanistan yesterday when U.S. forces dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” — a $16 million piece of ordinance — on a cave and tunnel complex near the Pakistan border.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb is the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the American military arsenal. It was designed for use in the second Iraq war but hadn’t been used in combat until yesterday.

What else might that $16 million buy?

For starters, how about 64 full four-year rides to Harvard, based on that university’s $63,000 annual room, board, and tuition? Or, if you set your higher education sights a little lower, that would be full four-year rides for 653 students at my public university in Michigan.

What that $16 million didn’t buy, however, is any clear U.S. strategy in Afghanistan:

Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is. “What they haven’t been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with,” he said. “They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it’s hard to be sure you’re having the desired effect.”

Meanwhile, on the question of what this means for strategy in Afghanistan, or even if dropping a MOAB was intended to send a message to anyone else, like North Korea, it’s unclear whether President Trump authorized the use of this weapon or even knew about it ahead of time.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to say whether the president had been in the Situation Room when the bomb was dropped, and the president himself was even more vague than usual, saying in response to a direct question, “Everybody knows exactly what happened. What I do is authorize the military.”

Watch the video below and revel in money well spent.

We’re #1!


How much more security can the United States buy with the $54 billion in new defense spending that President Trump will propose in his speech to Congress tonight?

Not a whole helluva lot if you ask me.

Consider what we already spend. In 2016, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2017 report, we spent more than the next dozen countries combined. The graphic above tells the tale.

The $604 billion that the US spent last year was more than four times what China spent, and more than 10 times what Russia spent. Frankly we spend our military competitors into the ground already.

The United States is the only country that can project military power anywhere on the globe it chooses, at any time it chooses. We can do that because of our unchallenged superiority in key hardware, for example, naval aircraft carriers.

There are only 36 aircraft carriers in the world. The United States Navy has 19 of them, 10 of those Nimitz-class “supercarriers.” Here’s what those ships carry:

Each Nimitz typically carries an air wing consisting of 24 F/A-18C Hornets, 24 F/A-E/F Super Hornets, 4 to 5 E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, 4 E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft, 2 C-2 Greyhound transport aircraft, and 6 Seahawk helicopters.

Two more Nimitz-class carriers are currently under construction.

What about the rest of the world? China has one, an old Soviet-era carrier which it acquired from a Chinese investor who had originally bought it to convert into a floating casino. It was refurbished and commissioned in 2012.

Russia also has one in it’s fleet, built in 1991. It’s spent much of the winter limping along the coast of Syria, belching smoke and losing fighter aircraft.

In terms of military rivals, that’s it. Meanwhile, the Brits have two under construction, France has one operational carrier. India boasts two, including an old British carrier that dates back to World War II.

You get the picture. For the full details check out this breakdown from Popular Mechanics.

So let’s bring it back to the main question: Given how huge a military advantage the United States already enjoys, how much more security can an additional $54 billion buy?

I don’t expect an answer in tonight’s speech, but I sure hope someone asks the question.