TSG IntelBrief: Privatizing the War in Afghanistan
July 12, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Like the previous two administrations, the Trump administration is facing a slow-motion defeat in Afghanistan with no real options.
• Increasing troop levels and the endless ‘train and equip’ are likely to continue.
• Some in the Trump administration reportedly favor a strategy that would essentially privatize the war in Afghanistan.
• The lack of an achievable U.S. victory in Afghanistan is compounded by the chaotic nature of the administration’s foreign policy.
While Syria, Iraq, and other persistent conflicts garner the majority of headlines, the U.S. war in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. The longest war in U.S. history shows every sign of falling apart, leading to the recent authorization of around 4,000 U.S. troops to attempt to reverse enormous negative trends—a feat that even 100,000 troops couldn’t accomplish during the 2009 surge. The situation has been deteriorating for years—with no obvious and politically sustainable options for success. For 16 years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to avoid a smaller-scale repeat of the Vietnam war—in which a dysfunctional government was perpetually propped up militarily, without the prospect of political reconciliation or a viable peace in the country.
A July 10 report in the New York Times highlights the tension between the urge to ‘do something’ and the difficult reality of achieving lasting gains. According to the report, some in the Trump administration favor a strategy that would essentially privatize the war in Afghanistan—which is already heavily supported by civilian contractors that hide the true costs and commitments of a nation at war. The proposed strategy would drastically increase the government’s reliance on private military contractors, using ‘private military units’ to replace U.S. troops. However, the arguments for such a strategy make little sense, even when viewed strictly through the narrowest of economic lenses. As seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the contracts for private military companies are often enormous in scale, but defended on the grounds that they are short-term, and that they relieve the government of the costs of deploying uniformed personnel, such as providing lifelong medical care or benefits for U.S. troops.
While outsourcing war is often viewed as an effective cost-saving measure, it is also extremely profitable for private military companies, with the near-certainty of massive conflicts of interests by those advising the administration to let their companies fight America’s wars. Senior members of the Trump administration reportedly sought policy proposals for the war in Afghanistan directly from private contractors who would stand to benefit financially from the conflict. The suggestion that private military contractors may play an increased role in planning U.S. strategy in Afghanistan raises the prospect that concerns over financial profit might influence the military planning process, which in any democracy ought to be based solely on America’s national interests.
The lack of accountability is just one of the toxic consequences of outsourcing war. In addition, a heavy reliance on private military contractors essentially hides the true costs of war, in terms of both financial and human capital. Such a strategy enables the government to hide the fact that the nation is, and has been, in multiple continuous wars, even as it insists in law and sentiment that it is not a country ‘at’ war. The effect that privatizing war has on elected officials’ political calculations is obvious, yet powerful: the ‘boots on the ground’ aren’t officially U.S. military—the contractors executing American foreign and national security policy are very often not even American—so the conflict does not demand the same level of debate, authorization, and applicable legislation. With the true costs and impacts of war obscured from reality, both the public and the U.S. congress are less able to effectively scrutinize one of the most consequential enterprises of American foreign policy.
The lack of an achievable U.S. strategy in Afghanistan—which has plagued the previous two administrations as well—is compounded by the chaotic and incoherent nature of the current administration’s foreign policy. There is no permanent U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan; the duties are now being performed by a very capable chargé d’affaires persuaded to postpone retirement due to the severity of the crisis and the lack of State Department personnel nominated by the administration. There is currently no ‘whole of government’ approach, simply because much of the State Department is missing as a host of senior-level positions remain unfilled. As with many other issues, there appears to be some conflict between departments over what the strategy is in Afghanistan, and how to achieve it. As the nation struggles to craft a winning strategy to turn the tide in Afghanistan, obscuring the true costs of the quagmire through outsourcing the war will present a politically appealing, but ultimately insufficient, option.
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