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Privatize This, Destroy That! No not Afghanistan.

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    Posted: 11-Jul-2017 at 5:09pm
Trump Aides Recruited Businessmen to Devise Options for Afghanistan

Privatize This, Destroy That! No not Afghanistan.

Erik Prince, the founder of the now-defunct mercenary firm Blackwater, and billionaire Stephen Feinberg

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s advisers recruited two businessmen who profited from military contracting to devise alternatives to the Pentagon’s plan to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, reflecting the Trump administration’s struggle to define its strategy for dealing with a war now 16 years old.

Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, have developed proposals to rely on contractors instead of American troops in Afghanistan at the behest of Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

On Saturday morning, Mr. Bannon sought out Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon to try to get a hearing for their ideas, an American official said. Mr. Mattis listened politely but declined to include the outside strategies in a review of Afghanistan policy that he is leading along with the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

The highly unusual meeting dramatizes the divide between Mr. Trump’s generals and his political staff over Afghanistan, the lengths to which his aides will go to give their boss more options for dealing with it and the readiness of this White House to turn to business people for help with diplomatic and military problems.

Soliciting the views of Mr. Prince and Mr. Feinberg certainly qualifies as out-of-the-box thinking in a process dominated by military leaders in the Pentagon and the National Security Council. But it also raises a host of ethical issues, not least that both men could profit from their recommendations.

“The conflict of interest in this is transparent,” said Sean McFate, a professor at Georgetown University who wrote a book about the growth of private armies, “The Modern Mercenary.” “Most of these contractors are not even American, so there is also a lot of moral hazard.”

Last month, Mr. Trump gave the Pentagon authority to send more American troops to Afghanistan — a number believed to be about 4,000 — as a stopgap measure to stabilize the security situation there. But as the administration grapples with a longer-term strategy, Mr. Trump’s aides have expressed concern that he will be locked into policies that failed under the past two presidents.

Mr. Feinberg, whose name had previously been floated to conduct a review of the nation’s intelligence agencies, met with the president on Afghanistan, according to an official, while Mr. Prince briefed several White House officials, including General McMaster, said a second person.

Mr. Prince laid out his views in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May. He called on the White House to appoint a viceroy to oversee the country and to use “private military units” to fill the gaps left by departed American soldiers. While he was at Blackwater, the company became involved in one of the most notorious episodes of the Iraq war, when its employees opened fire in a Baghdad square, killing 17 civilians.

After selling his stake in Blackwater in 2010, Mr. Prince mustered an army-for-hire for the United Arab Emirates. He has cultivated close ties to the Trump administration; his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Mr. Trump’s education secretary.

If Mr. Trump opted to use more contractors and fewer troops, it could also enrich DynCorp, which has already been paid $2.5 billion by the State Department for its work in the country, mainly training the Afghan police force. Mr. Feinberg controls DynCorp through Cerberus Capital Management, a firm he co-founded in 1992.

Mr. McFate, who used to work for DynCorp in Africa, said it could train and equip the Afghan Army, a costly, sometimes dangerous mission now handled by the American military. “The appeal to that,” he said, “is you limit your boots on the ground and you limit your casualties.” Some officials noted that under the government’s conflict-of-interest rules, DynCorp would not get a master contract to run operations in Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Mr. Feinberg declined to comment for this article, and a spokesman for Mr. Prince did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposals Mr. Prince presented, a former American official said, hew closely to the views outlined in his Journal column — in essence, that the private sector can operate “cheaper and better than the military” in Afghanistan.

Mr. Feinberg, another official said, puts more emphasis than Mr. Prince on working with Afghanistan’s central government. But his strategy would also give the C.I.A. control over operations in Afghanistan, which would be carried out by paramilitary units and hence subject to less oversight than the military, according to a person briefed on it.

The strategy has been called “the Laos option,” after America’s shadowy involvement in Laos during the war in neighboring Vietnam. C.I.A. contractors trained Laotian soldiers to fight Communist insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies until 1975, leaving the country under Communist control and with a deadly legacy of unexploded bombs. In Afghanistan until now, contractors have been used mainly for security and logistics.

Whatever the flaws in these approaches — and there are many, according to diplomats and military experts — some former officials said it made sense to open up the debate.

“The status quo is clearly not working,” said Laurel Miller, who just stepped down as the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “If the United States is going to chart a way forward towards a sustainable way of protecting our national security interests, it is important to consider a wide range of options.”

Despite Mr. Bannon’s apparent inability to persuade Mr. Mattis, Defense Department officials said they did not underestimate his influence as a link to, and an advocate for, Mr. Trump’s populist political base. Mr. Bannon has told colleagues that sending more troops to Afghanistan is a slippery slope to the nation building that Mr. Trump ran against during the campaign.

Mr. Bannon has also questioned what the United States has gotten for the $850 billion in nonmilitary spending it has poured into the country, noting that Afghanistan confounded the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration and the progressives in the Obama administration.

Mr. Kushner has not staked out as strong a position, one official said. But he, too, is sharply critical of the Bush and Obama strategies, and has said he views his role as making sure the president has credible options. Mr. Mattis has promised to present Mr. Trump with a recommendation for a broader strategy this month.

Like General McMaster, Mr. Mattis is believed to support sending several thousand more American troops to bolster the effort to advise and assist Afghan forces as they seek to reverse gains made by the Taliban. But he has been extremely careful in his public statements not to tip his hand, and has not yet exercised his authority to deploy troops.

Aides and associates say that while Mr. Mattis believes that Mr. Prince’s concept of relying on private armies in Afghanistan goes too far, he supported using contractors for limited, specific tasks when he was the four-star commander of the Pentagon’s Central Command.

“No one should diminish the role that they play,” Mr. Mattis, then a general, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2012. “It is expensive, but there are places and times where having a contract force works well for us, as opposed to putting uniformed military to do, whether it’s a training mission or a security guard mission.”

The Pentagon has developed options to send 3,000 to 5,000 more American troops, including hundreds of Special Operations forces, with a consensus settling on about 4,000 additional troops. NATO countries would contribute a few thousand additional forces.

“It seems likely that the new strategy in Afghanistan will look a lot like what was proposed at the end of 2013,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral who served as NATO’s top military commander.

Some critics say the increase will have little effect on the fighting on the ground. In May, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, testified that the situation in Afghanistan would probably deteriorate through 2018 despite a modest increase in American and NATO forces.

Asked in June by reporters in Brussels about that analysis, Mr. Mattis responded curtly, “They’re entitled to their assessment.”

The founder of Blackwater hopes Trump will give him some new business in Afghanistan

Erik Prince was one of the most controversial players in George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War. Now he’s reemerging as a key part of the Trump administration’s internal debates over the flagging war in Afghanistan.

It’s a familiar role for Prince, the former head of the infamous private security firm Blackwater. According to the New York Times, White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner asked Prince and Steven Feinberg, the financier behind DynCorp International, to come up with proposals for sending private contractors into Afghanistan instead of US troops.

The request came while the Pentagon works on a strategic review about US involvement in the country that is expected to end with a decision to send no more than 3,900 troops there. There are currently 9,800 troops in Afghanistan taking part in what is now the longest war in US history, and bringing in private contractors could be appealing because it would reduce the chance of US troops getting killed.

The war in Afghanistan is not going well. The Taliban, the militant group that once controlled the country, now has control over 40 percent of territory and 8.4 million Afghans, about a third of the country’s population. It’s no surprise, then, that the administration would look for different thinking about how to turn the tide there, but Defense Secretary James Mattis appears to have rejected Prince and Feinberg’s proposals.

Still, it’s not much of a surprise that Prince has been brought into the administration’s inner circle for so important a decision. After all, his sister is Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary. Prince also was asked to put together a Trump-Putin backchannel in the Seychelles so the two could establish better communications. It’s unclear if that communications channel actually got off the ground, although it is clear of late that the administration has been in touch with Russians.

So Prince is clearly a trusted entity for Trump and his aides. But the White House is dealing with a relentless businessman who has been consistently looking for lucrative new opportunities around the world, including a 2011 proposal to create a private militia to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia.

In an interview, military contracting expert Sean McFate said Prince also has big ambitions for his own role in shaping the future of Afghanistan.

“Prince really wants to be the king of Afghanistan,” McFate noted.

“He has a MacArthur-like vision for himself”

If you feel like you’ve heard Erik Prince’s name before, it’s because you have. Blackwater, the company he founded, made a fortune during the Iraq War but got into a lot of trouble along the way.

Prince founded the company in 1997, and quickly became the Bush administration’s go-to contractor in Iraq when it came to protecting top American officials and important US compounds. The company, which eventually had its own fleet of helicopters and armored vehicles, earned $2 billion from the US government until Prince sold it off in 2010.

But the money came at a high cost. In the fall of 2007, Blackwater contractors in Baghdad shot and killed 14 Iraqis, including children. Four of them were sentenced to jail — three for 30 years, the other for life.

Jeremy Scahill, a national security reporter who wrote a book on Blackwater, has said that Prince, a devout Christian, used his perch to label the fight against the Muslims of Iraq as a “crusade.”

“The Department of Justice has a filing in the criminal case against Blackwater where they say that some Blackwater operatives viewed the killing of Iraqis as — innocent Iraqis — as payback for 9/11,” Scahill told NPR in 2009. “And you also have a culture at Blackwater where Erik Prince himself ... has given speeches to people about the epic crusade that they're on and has in fact used that term himself — the term crusade.”

That seems to fit Prince’s personality. “Prince is in the alt-right Bannon camp,” McFate told me.

But if you ask Prince, he’d say Blackwater was unmarred by scandal. "My company's history is a proud tale of performance excellence and driven entrepreneurialism,” he wrote in his book defending Blackwater, Civilian Warriors.

However, Prince eventually had to go to the United Arab Emirates in 2010 after he faced too many legal battles and inquiries from Congress. He didn’t like the attention and felt the market in the US had dried up for him. So he was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to set up a private force.

“The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts,” the New York Times reported in May 2011.

But now Prince is back in the US, and Afghanistan represents a potentially lucrative new opportunity for him.

It also matters that Prince effectively wants to be in charge of Afghanistan. In a May 31 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he made the case for a “MacArthur model” in Afghanistan, alluding to how US Gen. Douglas MacArthur governed Japan for a spell after World War II. Prince argued someone should be put in charge of overseeing Afghanistan, including the “private solutions” that are deployed there.

He was clearly advocating that he should assume that role. “He has a MacArthur-like vision for himself,” McFate said in our interview.

Mattis rejected Prince and Feinberg’s proposals. But the point is those ideas are out there and could help shape the White House’s thinking on Afghanistan.

And, more importantly, Prince is out there too, seeking to gain power, fortune, and fame from his own advice.

NYT: Kushner & Bannon Asked Erik Prince & DynCorp Owner for Proposal on Private Contractors in Afghanistan. 

The latest big scoop from The New York Times came this morning, when the paper broke the news that presidential advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner met with private military contractors to offer an alternative to a troop surge in Afghanistan: a mercenary surge that could funnel billions of dollars into the contractors' pockets.

That the administration would have ties to Erik D. Prince, the founder of the notorious Blackwater firm, and Stephen Feinberg, of the military contractor DynCorp, should come as no surprise. That they would use policy to enrich their friends shouldn't either – it's standard operating procedure in this White House. But the bigger story here is that the move to shift Afghanistan operations from the military to contractors shows the full reach of the Trump administration's core philosophy: the privatization of everything.

The divisions between Trump and the conservative movement are well documented. On trade, on foreign policy, on social issues, there are wide and unbridgeable differences. But that framing has disguised the defining conservative philosophy at the heart of Trump's presidency: dismantling and privatizing public services.

Take that most liberal of policy proposals: infrastructure. Often held up as the ur-example of Trump's liberal policy preferences, his infrastructure plan, such as it is, is remarkably conservative. The infrastructure plan has morphed time and again, but Trump's initial idea was to give corporations tax breaks for building roads and bridges. Like most Trump policies, this plan has only ever been lightly sketched out. But it is framed around a core philosophy of enriching businesses while moving traditional government activities into the private sphere.

Nor is that all. The administration wants to privatize veterans' health care, which has been handled by Veterans Affairs since the agency's founding. It wants to privatize air traffic control. It wants to privatize national parks, the most public of spaces.

It's the most Reaganesque part of the Trump presidency. During the Reagan era, Republicans moved to privatize everything from prisons to garbage collection. Some of these efforts worked – introducing private competition into some public sectors helped control costs and increase service quality – but others involved outsourcing functions that should only be exercised by the state. The coercive and punitive power of imprisonment is the prime example: Privatized prisons have a strong economic motive for increasing the size of the prison population in ways that have ruined countless lives and communities over the past few decades.

Military force falls into this category as well. Military contractors and mercenaries are nothing new, of course. Prince's Blackwater was active throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where in 2007 its employees shot 37 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Four employees were eventually convicted of the murders.

That Bannon and Kushner would pair with Prince to extend the privatization of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, especially in light of this history, shows how dedicated they are to the principle of privatization, and how little they care about its consequences.

Their efforts are also of a piece with Trump's disinterest in staffing the federal government, a problem my colleague Robert Schlesinger has called "the shallow state." The hollowing out of the public sector through neglect and disuse feeds privatization because it doesn't allow the government to fulfill its obligations, furthering the conservative argument that the state can't effectively provide services that Americans need.

Whether that argument can work for the military, which remains a popular and trusted institution, has yet to be seen. And leaders like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H. R. McMaster seem distinctly uninterested in the proposal. But that it was devised at all indicates that the internal motto of the new administration is "privatize what you can when you can." And that makes the Trump administration more conservative, and more Reaganesque, than most on the right would like to admit.

The New York Times is reporting Erik Prince, the founder of the now-defunct mercenary firm Blackwater, and billionaire Stephen Feinberg, owner of military contractor DynCorp, developed proposals for the Trump administration to use more private military contractors in Afghanistan, rather than deploy thousands more U.S. troops, as the Pentagon has requested. Prince, who is also the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Feinberg developed the proposals at the request of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon. The proposal represents an obvious conflict of interest, given that both Prince and Feinberg profit off the use of private military contractors in U.S. wars. The State Department has already paid DynCorp $2.5 billion for its military contracting work in Afghanistan.

Edited by MateenK - 11-Jul-2017 at 6:41pm
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