by David Isenberg
President Trump’s August 21 speech on Afghanistan endorsed an increase of several thousand U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. In so doing, Trump seemed to reject the plan pitched by Erik Prince and Stephen Feinberg to substantially rely on private contractors to do the fighting in Afghanistan.
In fact, however, Trump’s speech was long on rhetoric and light on details. As Heather Digby Parton noted in Salon:
Essentially Trump told us, “We have a plan, we won’t tell you the plan and the plan will cost a lot of money.” In other words: “Trust me.
Having attracted some mainstream support, Prince’s proposal is not yet dead. The “new” U.S. strategy, in its focus on counterterrorist operations against the Taliban, leaves a lot of room for the use of private contractors. The Pentagon’s lack of enthusiasm about their use doesn’t mean they won’t end up working for the CIA.
The future credibility of the private contractor proposal for Afghanistan depends a great deal on the credibility of the man behind the plan: Erik Prince.
Life of Prince
Erik Prince, the co-founder of the former private security company Blackwater, has serious trustworthiness problems. A good read on this is the “rant” published by Robert Young Pelton last month. Having been among the first people to write about him, Pelton knows Prince well. He’s also currently in litigation against Prince over a book he helped him write.
Pelton wrote, in part:
I spent a lot of time inside Erik Prince’s organizations and have unique access to significant amounts of evidence, testimony, eyewitness accounts information and documents that insider’s, former employees, journalists, investigators and intelligence groups feed me…
…From a personal point of view, Erik Prince should not be part of any honest, intelligent conversation on anything related to tax dollars and transparency. After all he is a Libertarian [so] why does he have to live off tax dollars under the false pretense of “saving us money.”
Based on the published evidence it appears he is a liar, perjurer and practiced deceiver.
We know he cheated on his first wife while she was dying of cancer, cheated on his second wife (the nanny he knocked up) only to cheat on her with the nanny’s friend and the wife of his chief legal counsel.
He bailed out of naval aviator school and then bailed out of the SEALs. He was not allowed to join the CIA because he lied on his polygraph, then bailed on his own employees when four of them were murdered in Fallujah. He sued the families, and he ostracized the employees who [sic] he charged with running his business in Iraq. He even bailed on his own companies and projects, leaving people high and dry from Somalia to DC to Abu Dhabi. There are plenty of angry former Prince employees, just as there are many fans of Prince who like his style. But his entire contractor business model was based on attracting talented people who had millions of tax dollars invested in their training then renting and discarding them after skimming the profit. Many people I know are thankful for the money they made contracting but it is a cruel empty career when the phone stops ringing.
First and foremost and in my opinion and based on reviewing documents, Prince in his private communications is above all an angry narcissist, frustrated sociopath, covert aggressive punisher and serial scandalmonger. Accordingly he has secretly worked with propagandists, filmmakers, hackers, spammers, bloggers, journalists and most recently a blatantly obvious psyops group that includes the Moving Picture Institute (who did Prince’s “The Project”), Cambridge Analytica, Citizens United, GAI, Breitbart etc. to spread disinformation and anger based on fiction, measure it, bot it and measure it again. Most of this was directed against Hillary Clinton. Someone I also criticize openly.
As Pelton notes, Prince dropped out of the U.S. Naval Academy—in his sophomore year after being written up for being 30 minutes late after a three-day leave of absence, where he suffered an accident (a cut to his right hand and thumb). After leaving the academy he went to Hillsdale College in Michigan, during which he had an internship at the White House under George H.W. Bush. After graduation he got admitted to Officers Candidate School, even though no more spots were available, through the intercession of a former SEAL officer. He passed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training and he passed the advanced SEAL qualification training, which earned him his SEAL Trident.
But his career as a SEAL lasted only two years. In business terms, that is not much of a return on investment considering all the money that goes into training a SEAL. More importantly, those who become SEALS do so because they really, really want to be there. And being there means serving more than just two years. So, he is hardly the experienced former SEAL operator he and others make him out to be.
Prince’s credibility did not improve when he moved on to the next stage of his career. Suzanne Simons, author of a biography of Prince, writes:
Prince’s entire life, and certainly his astonishing career at Blackwater, had been something of an adventure race. Sprint at top speed, crash occasionally, but never stop racing. Sometimes it meant cutting corners. Sometimes it meant leaving slower team members behind…But Blackwater’s breakneck growth brought with it a host of problems. The company’s relentless determination to meet a growing demand for military services all over the world sometimes led to rules being broken.
The most egregious example is what happened to the Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah in 2004. Under Prince, Blackwater was more interested in holding down expenses than in giving their employees all the resources they need. As I noted in my book:
We know from the subsequent investigations into their deaths that Blackwater was intensely involved in “development or planning of the contractors security missions” or the directions on implementing them. It was Blackwater management, not the State Department, that reduced the preparation time for the ill-fated security detail so that they were dropped in place their first day on the job. It was Blackwater management that decided to send out a four-man detail instead of the usual six. It was Blackwater that decided to send the detail in soft-skinned instead of armored vehicles. It was Blackwater that decided not to give the detail machine guns as required by contract.
Finally, one of the most disturbing aspects of Prince’s proposal is the doubt it casts on the capacity of the U.S. state to maintain its monopoly on violence. When the private military industry first started receiving public attention nearly 30 years ago, the one question that kept getting asked over and over is what does this say about the utility of the modern nation-state. Academics have long noted that the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force, also known as the monopoly on violence, is a core concept of modern public law. The absence of this argument in the public discourse outside academic journals is a telling sign of how successful the private military and security industry has been in turning what should be a fundamental question of geopolitics into a mundane outsourcing cost-benefit analysis.
Although the proposed contractors will be under U.S. government contract and oversight, the United States would be sending a message to the world, should it adopt Prince’s proposal, that the U.S. military is incapable of successfully fighting a war on its own. Even worse, it will embolden any number of countries around the world to do the same. The world has centuries of bitter experience of allowing private forces, whether you call them mercenaries or private security contractors, to fight on the battlefield. It is not an experience that should be encouraged.
Photo: Erik Prince (Miller Center via Flickr)