DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: Can the Afghan war be privately run?

22nd September 2017 - 02:09 GMT | by ​Neil Thompson in London

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The Trump administration's decision to continue the American-led war in Afghanistan has raised renewed expectations that the American government and its Afghan allies could expand the role of private military companies (PMCs) in the long running Afghan civil war.

One controversial proposal would put 5,500 private contractors in charge of advising the Afghan military; the idea is the brainchild of former Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and, besides embedding PMCs in the Afghan army's units as advisers, it would include a 90 strong air force that would be called upon by the Afghan government to carry out strikes in the field against militant targets.

Prince believes his proposal would save American troops’ lives and the US government money. He claims his force would cost $10bn per year instead of the current $40bn the US taxpayer shells out to fight the Taliban.

PMCs have already played a huge role in the Afghan conflict over the past 16 years. This has mostly been spent performing mundane logistics, static security or training functions, but in a guerrilla conflict like Afghanistan the separation between these roles and frontline combat is easily blurred. 

Between 2009 and April 2016, 1,364 contractors were killed in Afghanistan versus 1,012 US troops. Moreover, the US military's current model is heavily dependent on private contractors to function, with a 3:1 contractor to soldier ratio being typical. The planned 'Trump surge’ of 4,000 extra troops will therefore likely entail a contractor surge into Afghanistan as well.

President Donald Trump sets out his Afghanistan strategy during a press conference at Conmy Hall on Fort Myer, Virginia, in August (Photo: US Army)

However, the Erik Prince proposal is unlikely to be carried out in full any time soon, especially after recently losing its main champion in the Trump administration with the departure of Steve Bannon. Other Trump advisers, such as National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster or Defence Secretary James Mattis, are unwilling to relinquish the level of control that Prince envisages to PMCs, no matter how well connected they are in Washington.

So far President Trump has listened more to the former generals inside his administration than he has to the populist-nationalist wing led by Bannon, who wanted a withdrawal from Afghanistan in order to confront China.

The Prince proposal would also be complicated to perform because it would entail a long handover from NATO forces, which, following the end of its combat role, is currently performing the task of supporting Afghan forces under Operation Resolute Support.

Specifically, all NATO’s 29 allies are contributing to sustainable force generation, recruitment, training, managing and development of personnel. It would be difficult for PMCs to simply step in and take over NATO’s efforts to train, advise and assist the Afghan army to ensure the full security and integrity of their country according to Jason Wiseman, the secretary-general of the Atlantic Treaty Association, a pro-NATO not-for-profit.

Speaking to Shephard, he said: ‘Given the scope of NATO’s mission and its overall familiarity, capacity and expertise in providing operational, logistical training and assistance in the form of “Capacity Building Initiatives (CBI’s)” I doubt any handover [to a new organisation] would be easy.’


Contractors have a wealth of experience in Afghanistan performing mundane logistics, static security or training functions. (Photo: US Army)

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has announced that the alliance will be stepping up its efforts under Operation Resolute Support to bolster the Afghan government and build up the state’s capacity, despite international fatigue with the intractable conflict there.

Afghanistan is suddenly seen by NATO’s European members as a way of proving their usefulness to Washington during a time of frosty relationships with the Russian Federation.

In a statement issued to the media, the secretary-general announced that he welcomed President Trump’s new, conditions-based approach to Afghanistan and the region and that NATO’s aim remained that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists as was the case before 11 September 2001.

He then went on to outline NATO's continued efforts to support, assist and train Afghan forces and to provide them with financial support, a sign that the alliance intends to continue its role as the primary supporter of the Afghan military establishment.

One experienced US PMC researcher, who wished to remain anonymous, told Shephard that companies should be sceptical of the Prince plan being successfully adopted, especially given the previous accountability problems that Western militaries had in conflicts such as Iraq. Instead of a frontline role he predicted an increase in PMCs’ current opportunities, ‘slightly scaled up’ to fit in with the expanded US presence there.

The main issue is accountability and relinquishing government control and oversight over the use of force.

Anonymous PMC expert

‘I don't think we'll see PMCs taking on a “tip of the spear” military role [in Afghanistan]… The main issue is accountability and relinquishing government control and oversight over the use of force. The only way to do this “on the cheap” is to hire foreign nationals, but that just creates a bigger accountability problem.’

The picture in Afghanistan is therefore a mixed one for PMCs, with Western governments not keen to follow in the path of various African states and turn over responsibility in Afghanistan to the private sector.

On the other hand, with the Trump presidency now committed to providing succor to the fragile Afghan government (a reversal of the president’s position on the campaign trail last year), the need for private military contractors will remain steady for the remaining three years or so of Trump’s current term.

This predictability and an uptick in demand for PMC services from the US military should ensure the Afghan market remains a profitable one for defence sector companies into the medium term.

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