Exclusive– A Senate-curious Erik Prince tells BLP: How U.S. wins in Afghanistan without breaking the bank, or the Army
The Navy SEAL veteran, founder of the Blackwater private security company and potential Wyoming Senate candidate told Big League Politics his plan for Afghanistan was shot down by advocates for the same-old-same-old.
Erik Prince said, in the war in Afghanistan, America has spent $1 trillion on combat operations, another $1 trillion on social programs with tens of thousands of dead Afghans, thousands of dead U.S. servicemembers, since the project began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“This new Pentagon strategy, which is very much like the old Pentagon strategy, is not making headway,” he said. “Sadly, the Taliban vote as well, and they are voting early and often.”
Prince said since the end of September another three districts has fallen under the control of the Taliban, despite the significant increase in bombing by the U.S. and its NATO coalition partners.
So far in October, the Taliban have killed dozens and dozens of local police officers, he said. “It is not going well, as predicted, and it is time to change course—like the president promised he would when he campaigned.”
During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald J. Trump was very critical of American policy in Afghanistan and he promised to rethink the strategy there.
In the spring and summer, Prince was brought into the Executive Mansion by White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to present new options for the war in Afghanistan outside the conventional-force box of options that has produced the ongoing slog.
“The U.S. conventional Army cannot think of any other way of doing business, other than doing what they have been doing for 16 years—that’s the problem,” he said.
“The whole premise that I laid out was a way to stay engaged in Afghanistan,” he said. “Look, the goal of the United States is to put relentless pressure on any terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan—if we leave, I believe you will have an ISIS or Taliban flag flying over the United States embassy in a matter of weeks or months.”
Prince said it would bring back the trauma of the Fall of Saigon. “You’re going to have another 1975 helicopter off the rooftop moment over the U.S. embassy.”
America cannot leave, but it cannot stay under the current conditions, he said.
One example is the recent visit by Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Kabul, he said. “When Secretary James Mattis landed there on Sept. 27 and when he lands his jet in Kabul airport, he then has to get into a helicopter and fly two-and-a-half miles over to the U.S. embassy? After 16 years, we can’t even secure that length of road? That’s a big problem.”
The helicopter shuttle to the embassy was not just for Mattis, it is the standard operating procedure for all visitors to the embassy, he said.
“This is not what winning looks like,” he said.
Prince walked on the national stage with four of his Blackwater employees driving in an armored vehicle were ambushed March 31, 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq, a Sunni-dominated city.
The attack was brazen and boys in the crowd pulled the bodies of the three veteran of the Navy SEALs and a veteran of the Army Rangers, dragged them to a bridge over the Euphrates River, where the charred bodies were hoisted and on the beams and left to swing.
In the articles about the incident, reporters were careful to point out that the dead men were not CIA, but part of the new innovation, private military contractors.
The story is the during his five years as a war president, his reaction to the ambush was the only time George W. Bush lost his cool–his rage he ordered the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division to take the city–that man was Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis.
Prince was born in 1969, the son of billionaire auto parts magnate Edgar D. Prince in Michigan. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland for a time and then left and returned to the Navy through Officers Candidate School in 1992 and then completed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. His Navy career was cut short by his father’s passing in 1995, which led to his return to civilian life, so that he could help run his father’s business. After Prince Machine Corporation was sold for $1.35 million, the former SEAL started up his own security company based on his observations from his time in the special operations community.
Blackwater was established in 1997 and in 2010, Prince sold it to a group of private investors.
DG, a former CIA counterterrorism officer, told Big League Politics that he had extensive experience working with Prince and Blackwater.
“I worked with Erik Prince’s team dating back to 2004, both at his Moyock, North Carolina training facility, and downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, where his operation provided high-level security for U.S. officials,” he said. “Prince is the kind of guy that they name GI Joe action figures for.”
Prince was a creative force, he said.
“In business, he innovated the Private Military Companies or PMC’s to meet the dynamic demands of irregular warfare in the modern era,” he said. “He did what the US government couldn’t do – or was afraid to do themselves – and did it cheaper and faster.”
DG said there was also a training side of what Blackwater provided.
“For many counterterrorism officers lacking military experience, the first time they ever fired a weapon was under the instruction and supervision of Blackwater contractors – themselves former special operators,” he said. “Most importantly, in all of their missions downrange, they never lost a single U.S. Government person under their protection.”
Today, Prince runs his own private equity firm Frontier Services Group that he owns with his Hong Kong partner Johnson Ko and sometimes, he also gets involved in the gray space of paramilitary and security opportunities. Headquartered in Hong Kong, FSG has offices in Beijing, Dubai, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Kinshasa. The company focuses three lines of business: security, logistics and insurance.
In 2016, Prince described FSG: “We help businesses in frontier markets overcome the unique logistics challenges they face. Our specialty is addressing these challenges in regions, some high-risk, where developed infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.”
The opportunity that is really calling Prince now is the Senate.
For that last few weeks, Prince has been huddling with Bannon.
Bannon, himself a former Navy officer, wants Prince to take down the No. 4 Senate Republican Wyoming’s Sen. John A. Barrasso III, along with another roughly 15 candidates in the 2018 GOP Senate primaries with the ultimate goal of upending Senate Majority Leader A. Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell (R.-Ky.).
The graduate of Hillsdale College told Big League Politics the only scoop he would give out about whether or not he would challenge Barrasso was his confirmation that he was indeed a Wyoming resident.
“We have had a ranch there for 25 years,” he said. “I am happy to be back in Wyoming and I am exploring the options.”
Prince said he was a Wyoming resident both before and after his time in the Navy.
Regardless of whether or not he runs for the Senate or not, the father of seven, said the plan he developed for America’s success in Afghanistan are still viable and he is committed to advocating for the plan.
Prince said a key flaw in the Pentagon’s approach has been its insistence on remaking Afghanistan’s military to emulate the American military—with all of its layers of command and rank structure. “It’s very high cost. It is totally dependent on air power.”
Troop rotations are another problem, especially now with the seven-month deployment, he said. The practical reality is that after settling in, there are only two or three months before the soldiers start packing up and preparing to go home.
“Then, you repeat and repeat and repeat,” he said.
One of the only components of Afghanistan’s security apparatus that functions well is their special operations forces, he said.
“That is because they were built and trained by their U.S. SOF counterparts,” he said. “Small unit tactics, soldier skills—trained and mentored in a proven way—all I am talking about doing is taking that model and applying it to the rest of the Afghan conventional army.”
The next step is to then assign U.S. Special Forces, whose mission includes training foreign military, to this task, but that would be a mistake, he said.
Such a commitment of Green Berets would commit 65 percent of the units with the other 35 percent for the follow-on deployment to relieve the first rotation, Prince said.
“Clearly, they did not have the numbers to do that,” he said.
The alternative is to tap into the global community of SOF veterans, who are now civilians, and using them to train and mentor the Afghanistan military, he said.
“From the United States, the U.K. and Canada and Germany and France and Poland and Sweden and South African and Australian and New Zealand—there’s lots of fantastic talent and this mission is perfect for that kind of capability,” he said.
“You combine mentors on the ground, attached to the Afghan forces, so they are not by UN definition mercenaries and you provide them some air support,” he said.
“Here is a sad fact: You are seven-and-one-half times more likely to die if you are a wounded Afghan soldier than you are if you are an American soldier,” he said.
“They don’t good combat medicine and medevac, so an Afghan soldier goes outside the wire and gets shot? Much more likely to die–That makes a soldier less willing to fight,” he said.
If you do bring to the Afghan forces airlift for medevac, resupply and mobility, you now take back the initiative, he said.
“You have reliable ground forces, with people who know what they are doing, they are well supplied and backed up by air and you could pound the hell out of the Taliban and ISIS,” he said. “Not we as in private army we, no, the Afghan forces strengthened and supported in a historically proven way.”
Prince said his plan is simple and doable.
“It is kind of like what the East India Company would have done—and it worked for 250 years,” he said.
The East India Company was a private venture with a royal charter that operated in India from the beginning in the early 17th century through the beginning of direct Imperial administration in 1858. The East India Company, name-checked in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, the company was the real conqueror of the subcontinent.
The company fielded its own army, navy, both larger than the mother country’s own, and civil bureaucracy that fought back local warlords, pirates and the Portuguese, all while building an enormously profitable trade in among other things, tea, coffee, spices, cotton and opium. In fact, the grand ceiling portrait at East India House, the company’s London headquarters, was titled, “The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia.”
England’s monarchs and parliament were content to let the company operate independently within the context of English sovereignty—a model put forward by the Founders in the years leading to the American Revolution.
Prince said the example of the East India Company is compelling for its lessons for the American project in Afghanistan, but not with opium, with minerals.
The New York Times published in June 2010 a classified memorandum detailing the vast mineral reserves locked underground in Afghanistan. There are many estimates putting the mineral reserves worth $1 trillion, including $274 billion in copper, $50 billion in cobalt, $25 billion in gold and more lithium than Bolivia.
Prince said the development of minerals industry has stalled in Afghanistan because it never received the attention other garnered. An example of this is the fact that despite a serious effort in 2012, Afghanistan still does not have a legal regime or legislation governing the mineral industry.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies are developing copper extraction outside of Kabul.
If one of the problems in Afghanistan is marriage-age, single men are unemployed, large-scale mining operations would pull these men from both the insurgency and the poppy fields, he said.
“The British used to say that a functioning workshop is better than a battalion of soldiers,” Prince said.
“You build a couple of those mines—and this is the low-capex approach—where you can employ a 1,000 or 5,000 Afghans with picks and shovels and you do the mine old-school and soak up an enormous amount of labor,” he said. Cap-ex is a slang for capital expenditures.
“You employ them,” he said. “You pay them well and feed them well and house them well and house create a cycle of virtue—instead of this endless cycle of destruction we’ve been on for the last 16 years.”