M.A. Shiwani: Of Wars and Contractors

Deploying mercenaries in Afghanistan will not only roll back the progress that has been made over the past decade, but it will also severely threaten future prospects for peace …

As the Trump Administration moves closer to releasing its policy review on Afghanistan, it has recruited Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater (now Academi) and Stephen Feinberg, owner of DynCorp International to assist the Pentagon in strategy formulation. DynCorp and Blackwater are both Private Military Companies (PMCs). In other words they are mercenaries. In accordance with its manifesto, the administration wishes to curtail the deployment of additional US troops in Afghanistan. In response, Prince and Feinberg have, rather unsurprisingly, presented a proposal that substitutes US troops with personnel provided by PMCs. Even though the Pentagon was recently given permission to deploy more troops into Afghanistan, Trump aides are adamant not to use the same policies that failed under the last two presidents and are thus seriously considering the proposal put forward by Prince and Feinberg.

Let us briefly go through the shadowy history of the United States’ use of private armies and military contractors. After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was tasked with rebuilding the Afghan National Police (ANP) to fight the Taliban. Since Iraq and the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was slowly moving up the national security agenda, the US wanted to exit Afghanistan as quickly as possible while also using the bare minimum amount of resources required. It thus decided to employ DynCorp International to train the ANP, with the State Department giving DynCorp $24 million to set up training camps across Afghanistan.

According to Ahmed Rashid— one of the most respected journalistic authorities on Afghanistan:

Between 2003 and 2005, the United States was to spend some $860 million in training forty thousand policemen, but the results were almost totally useless.

Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the UN, called DynCorp’s training program, “an appalling joke”.

If it is not already obvious, following DynCorp’s training the ANP became a fragile force that miserably failed in countering the Taliban insurgency, let alone winning the, ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace. Furthermore, this fragility in the police contributed immensely to the onset of the neo-Taliban insurgency, which functioned on the mechanism of 3rd generational warfare, aimed at developing localized streams of legitimacy by creating shadow governments.

Since the police did not have the capacity to disrupt the Taliban’s governance networks, act as a liaison between the government and the civilian population, or contain attacks on government-held territories, the Taliban succeeded in garnering political capital against the state, thus strengthening the credentials of its ideology. In that context, it can safely be said that America’s longest war would have ended earlier, or at least have been less devastating, had the US not hired an, “appalling joke” to train the ANP to fight one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world.

Peter W. Singer — a former expert at the Brookings Institute, in a report titled,
“The Dark Truth about Blackwater”, concluded that his decade-long research on private military contractors has undoubtedly proven that the use of Blackwater security personnel in Iraq did more harm than good to US counterinsurgency efforts. This, he claims, is because incidents such as the Nisour Square Massacre — where Blackwater employees opened fire on civilians— severely undermined the legitimacy of the US and its position as the, ‘savior’ of the Iraqi people. WikiLeaks further revealed 14 other incidents where Blackwater opened fire on civilians, providing ample evidence that the company played the role of an unregulated mercenary in Iraq. These incidents contributed greatly to bolstering the incertitude amongst civilians regarding the intentions of the US; how and why this undermined legitimacy served as the primary reason for the rise of the Islamic State can be seen here.

If history has, and current affairs continue to show two vivid examples of why PMCs should not be used, why is the US considering their usage? When asked to comment on this issue, Laurel Miller, who recently resigned as the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said:

The status quo is clearly not working … 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.

The only viable conclusion that one can obtain from this is that the decision-making mechanism of the US is to use Plan B when Plan A fails miserably, and when Plan B also turns into a pitiful wreck, to revert back to Plan A.

I would essentially want to come up with a brilliantly analytical theory as to why the US is even considering using PMCs but, to be very honest, I highly doubt whether there is a method to Trump’s madness. In the words of the Business Insider:

What the heck [is the US] doing in Afghanistan right now?

History has shown that PMCs do not know how to battle insurgencies or establish relationships of trust with the civilian population. Even though PMCs will reduce the political backlash that the US is currently receiving for its constant deployment additional troops into Afghanistan and may also reduce the financial costs of the war, the situation will only be ameliorated momentarily. These companies engage in combat or security provision merely because they are paid to do so; working with civilians or the central government is not part of their job description. They are also unaware of the social nuances of the regions that they are deployed in— every region entails a different system of combat; a blanket training policy is bound to create ineffectiveness and incompetence within already fragile forces because the training received by employees or national security forces will be immensely dissimilar to the proceedings of the battleground.

Most insurgencies now function on the model of 3rd generational warfare where the objective is to avoid direct conflict and gradually erode the legitimacy of the opponent. By employing PMCs, the state is essentially playing into the hands of the insurgents: actions like those of Blackwater in Iraq contribute to the erosion of the state’s legitimacy, making way for insurgents to win the, ‘hearts and minds’ of civilians and will hence further their social and political base, naturally exacerbating the conflict rather than resolving it.

Here is an article by the Foreign Affairs Magazine that further elucidates how PMCs are inherently detrimental to winning a war.

Afghanistan is gradually showing signs of improvement; the restarting of the peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in Qatar, the steps being taken by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to increase cooperation with Islamabad, and even the apparent, ‘stalemate’ in Afghanistan as opposed to full-blown warfare are all signs of a slow movement towards peace in Afghanistan. Deploying PMCs in Afghanistan will not only roll back the progress that has been made over the past decade, but it will also severely threaten future prospects for peace, especially if an incident like the Nisour Square Massacre is repeated. PMCs are not an option.

Mohammad Ahmed Shiwani is an intern at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Discussion, Mercenaries, Pakistan Horizon, Taliban, Trump, United States

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