Breakdown of a Controversial Op-Ed: Erik Prince’s New York Times Argument for Deploying his Mercenaries to Deny Terrorists Safe Haven in Afghanistan

Image from The Archetypal Leader, an essay by Kiley Q. Laughlin, Ph.D.

On August 30, 2017, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Erik Prince, the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and co-founder of the private military contractor firm formerly known as Blackwater (now known as Academi). Prince’s op-ed argues for a draw-down of official U.S. military presence in Afghanistan with a simultaneous boost in private military contractors operating in that incessantly war-torn country. In this article I present the full text of the op-ed, interspersed with commentary representing both my views and the views of others who provided their critiques in the public comments to the op-ed.

In my view, there should be as few restrictions on the publication of op-ed pieces presenting controversial views and arguments as should restrict the publication of thoughtful, reasoned responses thereto. The point of op-ed pieces should be to stimulate readers to activate their brains to present their own critiques and rebuttals so that the argument presented can receive the rigorous analysis that any good argument deserves before being accepted as valid. Jack Shafer, POLITICO’s senior media writer, seems to share this outlook. In his piece “The New York Times Op-Ed Page is Not Your Safe Space”, published September 2, 2017, Shafer critiques what he calls “umbrage fever”: the recent spike in general outrage against the mere publication of controversial op-ed pieces. In it, Shafer mentions the Erik Prince op-ed in passing and reports that the left believes it is nothing but a sales pitch that should never have been published by a reputable paper like the NYT.

This article is a novel attempt to reproduce a controversial op-ed in its entirety and to provide thoughtful and measured responses intended to stimulate reasoned thought for the purpose of helping readers make sharper, smarter decisions about whether to accept or reject Prince’s arguments. One of the strongest rebuttals to his argument is that his self-interest (i.e., ownership of the company profiting from his argument) makes all of his statements suspect. Although I will not elaborate here on this self-interest problem, I will simply say that I agree that it requires us to be more rigorous in our treatment of his argument prior to acceptance thereof.

So, without further ado, here is the first segment of Prince’s op-ed:

In 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, a group of volunteer American aviators led by Gen. Claire Chennault known as the Flying Tigers fought Japanese aggression in China. They were so successful that many people believe they were decisive in holding back Japan, eventually leading to its defeat. Although they were paid volunteers rather than members of the American military, they were not denigrated as “mercenaries.” The Flying Tigers — who now would be called contractors — fought for China and the United States and, like paid American contractors in theaters of war today, fought as bravely and patriotically as American soldiers. As policy makers in Washington decide what to do in Afghanistan, they should keep the Flying Tigers in mind. Such a force could be just the solution Afghanistan needs.

Prince does well to preface his actual argument with this mixed salad of romance, military success, and concern for connotations. Chennault’s Flying Tigers represent perhaps the single-most romantic episode in the history of American mercenary forces. They were successful in achieving disruptive and lethal actions against an invading foe that was uniformly despised by the oppressed Chinese and by many Americans. However, unlike in Afghanistan where the Taliban has a granular hold on the hearts and minds of Afghans, right down to the level of the smallest village, the line dividing friend from foe was much easier to draw in the China of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The “Hell’s Angels” 3rd Squadron was one of three Flying Tiger squadrons that fought the Japanese.

Right at the start of his argument, Prince tries to nip in the bud all the negative connotations surrounding the term “mercenary” by substituting the neutral-sounding term “contractor.” The right to enter into contracts is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Many American fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters are contractors by trade and earn their living thanks to the blessings of the rich traditions of contract law. Surely the image of a dutiful father earning an income for his family is much more appealing than that of the dutiful mercenary doing the same thing. Contractors build your home sweet home. That’s what they do. Mercenaries kill, maim, and spread destruction. That’s what they do. It’s easy to see how this opening phase of Prince’s argument is effective. It’s also easy to see how shallow it is, appealing as it does to the heart instead of the head. It gets the reader in the mood to think of blood-thirsty, tattooed mercenaries more as romantic and successful pillars of the community. Great job, Prince! But wait, there’s still an argument to be made…

The reasons [for deploying contractors to Afghanistan] are as obvious as they are compelling: Last week, President Trump announced his “new strategy” to end the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. But in promising to add more dollars to the more than $800 billion already spent, not to mention more American troops to the thousands already dead or wounded, President Trump’s strategy is sadly more old than new. Fortunately, it is not too late to alter the course. This spring, as Afghanistan policy was debated in Washington, the president asked for fresh options to end the war honorably. Faced with two choices — pulling out entirely or staying the course — I argued strongly for a new approach, a third path that would put in place a light footprint of American Special Forces, as well as contractors to work with Afghans to focus on the goal that Americans really care about: denying America’s enemies the sanctuary they used to plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

Here is Prince’s argument in its first, rough outline. Unfortunately the basic argument is fraught with massive contradictions. Prince bemoans the dollar value cost of the seemingly perpetual war in Afghanistan, but fails to mention that his employee’s salaries would be paid thanks to our tax dollars. He states that the goal is to end the war honorably, yet his method of achieving that goal would in fact perpetuate the war under cover of private contract law. The American public is tired of this, the longest war in U.S. military history. Even in our fiction, the concept of perpetual war is something to be loathed and rejected, not embraced with open arms.

The Hugo and Nebula award winning novel of incessant interstellar conflict
The third path I’m talking about is not untested, even if it has been forgotten. When the United States first went into Afghanistan in 2001, it devastated the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a matter of weeks using only a few hundred C.I.A. and Special Operations personnel, backed by American air power. Later, when the United States transitioned to conventional Pentagon stability operations, this success was reversed. Since then, the Pentagon’s biggest innovation has been to vary American and NATO troop levels from 9,000 to 140,000, and to increase civilian contractors to a peak level of 117,000 during President Obama’s ‘surge.’ But history shows clearly that sheer tonnage does not win insurgencies. In all of them, when a foreign “invader” dominates, the weaker indigenous forces wait and learn. The 20 or so terrorist organizations in Afghanistan have watched American troops rotate through the country every six to nine months, allowing the insurgents to learn our battlefield tactics, including how forces patrol, communicate, target and respond. These quick rotations give American troops less time to learn the insurgents’ tactics.

If quick rotations are the problem, shouldn’t the solution be longer rotations? The military could certainly get that done with the stroke of a pen. What looms large in the background of this segment of Prince’s argument is the addiction the U.S. military has for private contractors. Bringing contractors on board helps to deflect criticism and shift blame away from the Pentagon for many of the inevitable problems that occur in these war zones. The Brookings Institution published a report demonstrating how this addiction played out in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Blackwater employees (and not military servicepersons) killed civilians in Iraq, a sigh of relief went up in the Pentagon. Less bad press for them. Let the independent, private contractors take the punishment.

The “new” strategy that the president adopted last week would reportedly increase authorized troop levels from 8,400 to around 12,400. This will merely continue the conflict. And no one can seriously argue that this strategy won’t inevitably require more spending, more troops and more casualties. In a war that has already lasted twice as long as Vietnam, is this the “new” strategy we want?
Credit must be given where it’s due. A bright spot in the Pentagon’s approach has been its reliance on the Afghan Special Forces, a unit representing fewer than 10 percent of total Afghan forces that conducts 70 to 80 percent of all offensive combat operations in the country. American Special Forces train and mentor those troops effectively. My proposal is for a sustainable footprint of 2,000 American Special Operations and support personnel, as well as a contractor force of less than 6,000 (far less than the 26,000 in country now). This team would provide a support structure for the Afghans, allowing the United States’ conventional forces to return home.

What would these 6,000 contractors do? “Provide a support structure for the Afghans”? What does that mean? Until Prince explains why each of the 6,000 employees of his company needs to be in Afghanistan, until he explains what a “support structure” is, we are left wondering why Prince should receive a cut of some profit for each one of these employees. When you’re running a business, 6,000 employees paid by a customer is a much better outcome than zero employees being paid. Here’s where self-interest comes into play.

This plan would use former Special Operations veterans as contractors who would live, train and patrol alongside their Afghan counterparts at the lowest company and battalion levels — where it matters most. American veterans, whose extraordinary knowledge and experience could be vital to Afghan success on the ground, would serve as adjuncts to the Afghan Army and would perform in strict conformity with Afghan rules of engagement, eliminating the stigma of a foreign occupying force. Supplemental Afghan air power, flown with Afghan markings, would include a contractor safety pilot, but only the onboard Afghan officer would make weapons decisions. All contracted personnel would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, just as active-duty American troops are now.

Prince has trouble here “eliminating the stigma of a foreign occupying force”. East German citizens did not feel less intimidated by the Soviet Union by the fact that not too many Soviet citizens occupied positions of authority in East Germany. Where did these veterans get their “extraordinary knowledge and experience”? Oh yeah. The U.S. military. As one of the comments to Prince’s op-ed explained, the contractors will have more trouble dealing with health issues given that they will not have access to Veteran’s Administration benefits for injuries sustained while fighting as private citizens. If you think it’s good that they don’t drain US resources by getting VA benefits, they can in fact sue the U.S. government for massive damage awards for government negligence. There is no Feres Doctrine bar for private citizens. Note that the similarly-situated servicepersons can’t sue under current law.

If the president pursues this third path, I, too, would vigorously compete to implement a plan that saves American lives, costs less than 20 percent of current spending and saves American taxpayers more than $40 billion a year. Just as no one criticizes Elon Musk because his company SpaceX helps supply American astronauts, no one should criticize a private company — mine or anyone else’s — for helping us end this ugly multigenerational war.

Here there is more to critique. First, there is no reason why similarly small numbers of government employees (e.g., military servicepersons, CIA, etc.) couldn’t do the same job as Prince’s mercenaries (oops, “contractors”). And the savings could be just as good with a similar draw-down of military servicepersons. Second, The SpaceX statement is inapt. Plenty of people criticize Elon Musk for taking jobs away from NASA. Many of them work for NASA. The conclusion of the SpaceX statement is dangerous (“no one should criticize a private company”). To suggest that his company is above criticism, in light of Blackwater’s soiled history, is to suggest that we should simply stop thinking and blindly accept Prince’s logic.
It’s not too late to find a new path and give a new band of Flying Tigers a chance to serve America as valiantly as their predecessors did.

Prince wisely wraps up his argument as he prefaced it: by associating his employees, whose livelihood depends on sustained conflict, with the romance, glory, and valiant spirit of the Flying Tigers. Great job, Prince!

Still, I’m going to take a pass on Prince’s offer. And so should the White House.