I've never served in the military. I've never worked for the Foreign Service. I've never studied foreign policy or done advocacy work focused on it. I'm just a political hack, and I've been one for the last 16 years, working with Democratic campaigns and progressive nonprofits.
That makes my opinion near useless when it comes to finding a solution to the violent Afghanistan quagmire we can't seem to escape. The truth is I don't know what to do about Afghanistan. I'd like to see the United States pull out of the country, but I don't want to leave it in the hands of an unstable government that could easily fall to the extremist Taliban. I also don't want to see a huge new investment of American money and lives, and the resulting deaths of Afghan civilians. No doubt it's a difficult problem to solve, and I don't have the answers.
And while I may not be the person to turn to, I can think of someone even worse: the former owner of a for-profit military contractor who stands to make millions of dollars if we send a team of his unaccountable mercenaries into the war-torn country. I may be uncertain of the right thing to do to bring peace to Afghanistan, but at least I'm not arguing to send private contractors there, put the war effort in their hands and extract whatever profit I can out of the violence and chaos.
A person like that would be even worse than I am to ask about our policy toward Afghanistan. If he were to suggest sending more contractors like those who work for him to Afghanistan to win the war, he'd simply be a bad person.
But that's exactly what Erik Prince suggested in a New York Times op-ed this week.
Prince was born into wealth. Unlike me, he decided to serve his country in the military and fulfilled the almost superhuman requirements to become a Navy SEAL. That's admirable.
But then he parlayed his experience with his wealth and contacts to form a private military contracting firm with the ominous name Blackwater. In Iraq, his contractors were responsible for a veritable reign of terror, culminating in the Nisour Square massacre in September 2007. Escorting a U.S. embassy convoy through Baghdad, Blackwater contractors got into a firefight, killing 17 people and injuring 20 more. Blackwater was kicked out of Iraq, and four contractors were convicted on charges ranging from manslaughter to murder. (The murder conviction has been overturned and the contractor may be retried; the sentences for manslaughter have also been overturned on appeal.)
That massacre highlighted the fundamental problem with putting contractors in a war zone: Their actions aren't subject to the same standards of review and accountability members of the military face. They don't have a strict chain of command that's held responsible when things go wrong. That freedom breeds a cowboy culture, and the results can be deadly.
While there may be a role for military contractors in war zones – security for non-military personnel seemed like a good fit, although Blackwater sure screwed that up – actual engagement with enemies should be left to our military services, with all the layers of legal and structural restrictions in place.
Prince may not still own Academi – what Blackwater is now called after two PR-driven name changes – but he is still deeply involved in the security contracting world. Combined with his close ties to the Trump administration, including a sister in the Cabinet, it's clear he stands to benefit from sending contractors to fight the war in Afghanistan on America's behalf.
Whose opinion on matters of war matters less than a war profiteer’s? I may have no military or foreign policy experience, but at least you can be assured my opinion won't be based on how much money I stand to make off violence and death. Erik Prince's opinion on American policy in Afghanistan is worse than meaningless: It is actively harmful.