Lt. Gen. Austin Scott Miller has been chosen as the next commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. He is the 17th commander to oversee Afghanistan operations. Troops that deploy to Afghanistan usually serve anywhere from 180 days to a year, depending on military specialty or MOS. This constant rotation of troops was started back during the Vietnam conflict, where soldiers were typically in country 12 months and then rotated out. That rotation has continued, but at a much more accelerated pace in Afghanistan. During WWII and Korea, troops were in the fight for the duration.
When troops deploy to a new theater, there is a learning period. It takes months to understand the culture, the surroundings, and to read the small things that so clearly indicate when something is about to go sideways. Add to this the constant rebuilding of relationships with Afghan counterparts, civilians, and leaders. What results from these broken relationships is a never-ending series of unintentional missteps and mistakes. Many of these missteps don’t matter in the big picture, but some do and can create a significant problem for the troops thrust into this new and very foreign environment.
Then you take the fact that Lt. General Miller is the 17th commander in 17 years, and it is easy to see why the mission is always changing. The focus is continually shifting. New commanders, who suffer from the same issues as the troops they command, never really learn the ropes before being replaced, causing the cycle to start all over again.
Another issue is the Afghan leaders know their U.S. counterparts are only there for a short time. They sometimes see it as a waste of time and effort to try to bond with the incoming U.S. commander and their staff because they know they will be gone in a matter of months.
The Use of Contractors
The use of contractors is not a new idea. There are currently about 14,000 troops and 26,000 contractors in Afghanistan. Contractors keep equipment running and ensure water, power, sewage, and more remain operational. In addition to chow halls, most medical, supply, and a whole host of other services are run and operated by contractors. If an air conditioner or a plumbing problem arises, you can bet a contractor will be the one to handle it. Contractors do most of the security screening and maintain the communications gear. They even run the laundry. It makes better sense to use a civilian rather than taking a U.S. military member off the line to make sure the A/C works. Combat troops are better used for combat.
Full disclosure: I was a contractor in Afghanistan and later in Iraq for almost five years, including a couple of 30-day breaks along the way. I did not do the type of jobs mentioned above. I was a high-risk security contractor, and I worked “outside the wire” almost every day. My job was to look for IEDs and explosives along the paths, in the buildings, and in the vehicles that were bringing supplies to the bases. It took a while to learn the signs and clues that something was not right, and had I regularly rotated out, I would have never gained that knowledge. I also was able to develop relationships and trust with some of the locals, as well as the Afghan military members working alongside. Those relationships were an added benefit of being on the ground for more than a short period and something the U.S. troops were unable to develop.
The contractors who worked outside of the confines of the base saw results. They could go to areas where military regulations precluded soldiers from going. There was more than one occasion where my Afghan security team I had built a relationship with passed information that was very timely, usually about imminent attacks to our location. They did not give it to the military because they did not “know them.”
A Way Forward
Recently, Erik Prince, the former CEO of the private military company known as Blackwater, has floated a plan both to President Trump as well as to the Afghan government to end the decades-long engagement of troops in the country. Addressing the problems of continually rotating units in and out of Afghanistan, he said, “I would call repeating that insanity for the 31st or 32nd time unwise. The president rightly campaigned on ending our endless wars. He has an opportunity to do it.”
His company and its operators were involved in the shooting in Nisoor Square Baghdad on September 16, 2007. The incident was the catalyst to Blackwater’s end in Iraq. Blackwater contractors fired on a crowd of Iraqi civilians, killing 17. The Iraqi government ordered the security firm out of the country, and the State Department ended Blackwater’s contract the next year. Since then, the company has remade itself several times and continues to operate as a private security firm worldwide.
The plan Mr. Prince has put forward actually makes a lot of sense. It seems apparent that what we have been doing isn’t working. The U.S. has valid and valuable interests in a stable Afghanistan, and Erik Prince says he and his company can make that happen.
When the U.S sends troops to Afghanistan, not all are combat veterans. Many are relatively new to the military. Eighteen-year-olds and twenty-somethings are thrust into a world that they never considered most of the time. Afghanistan is the real deal. It is austere, uninviting, and dangerous. Most U.S. forces deployed there are just looking to survive and rotate home to continue their careers or their civilian lives.
Contractors, on the other hand, usually are older and seasoned soldiers. Many are former special operations warriors. They are fully aware of the hardships and strife in a war zone. They work hard to find employment that will place them exactly where most people, including U.S. soldiers, don’t want to be. These are professional soldiers, warriors if you will.
Instead of sending troops that don’t’ necessarily want to deploy to a war zone, why not let those professional warriors, contractors that strive to be in that environment, do the job?
A Brief Overview of Erik Prince’s Proposal
Currently, counting NATO, contractors, and U.S.troops, there’s about 75,000 personnel in Afghanistan, not counting the Afghan forces supporting the mission of fighting the Taliban.
The NATO mission would end. NATO comes with a myriad of restrictions, rules of engagement specific to each nation supplying the forces, and competing missions. Prince’s concept is embedded structural support to the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF).
These would be replaced with a much smaller number of approximately 6,000 contractors and 2,000 active-duty U.S. special operations forces. The makeup of the force would be heavy in former U.S. and NATO special operations personnel. The U.S. special operations forces would be the lead element and provide the U.S. unilateral direct-action capabilities. The use of these U.S. forces would also allow quality assurance of the contractor’s portion of the operation.
One of the most significant problems is a rotation of seasoned forces out of the mission. Under Prince’s plan, there would be no rotations. Contractors would stay with their Afghan units, building trust and gaining valuable knowledge that only comes from extended experience in the theater. Contractors do need downtime, however; they would work 90 days on, 30 days off, but return to the same unit and region.
The plan is to provide a private air force operated by around 2,000 of his contracted personnel which would fly and support a fleet of medevac, close-air support, and helicopter air assets. Two fully-equipped western-style combat surgical hospitals would also be operated and treat not only his contractors but Afghan soldiers as well.
When it comes to cost, the proposed plan targets a 5.5 billion dollar budget as opposed to the 76 billion dollars the U.S. is currently spending per year. The operational funding equates to $3.5 billion for the contractors, aircraft, warehouses, logistics and the field hospitals. The other $2 billion would be for support of the 2,000 U.S. troops.
A significant concern is accountability. Prince says the contractors and military forces would both be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and Afghan law. To further partner with Afghan forces, each of his aircraft would be operated by at least one Afghan crew member who would be responsible for any weapon deployment. Contractors would not be firing the weapons from the aircraft.
Contractors serving as advisors to Afghan forces under Afghan rules of engagement would be accountable for any misconduct under the UCMJ. Prince also proposed that investigations and corrective actions, if needed, would be conducted in Afghanistan under a Judge Advocate General (JAG) element similar to those routinely assigned for U.S. armed forces. In the case of a contractor or U.S soldier facing incarceration, that would take place in their home country of citizenship or the U.S.
As is done now, injured contractors (I know personally about this) would be covered by Defense Base Act insurance. That insurance, which even now every U.S. military contracting company has to provide, covers the costs of full medical treatment, evacuation, and lost wages. In the case of a U.S. military member being injured, they would be cared for under the VA.
Is This Feasible?
I think the plan certainly deserves a look. The course of our military operation over the last 17 years has not resulted in anything close to the desired outcome. There are examples of other private military operations that resulted in success. Executive Outcomes in the late 90s was instrumental in the destruction of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgency facilitating peace negotiations and elections in Sierra Leone, ending an 11-year war in less than 12 months.
Erik Prince seems to have covered most of the bases in his proposal. With a president in office that wants to win as well as bring U.S. troops home, Mr. Prince may have an opportunity to prove that doing the same thing over and over again really is insanity and it is time to try something different.