Did Trump just privatise war?
Jamie Seidel — The day President Trump decreed the US would abandon Syria and Afghanistan, controversial US mercenary group Blackwater declared — “WE ARE COMING’. Does this mean war has just been privatised?
The highly controversial move sent shockwaves through the Middle East, NATO and many US allies. It also prompted US Defence Secretary James Mattis to quit.
But as the turmoil unfolded, a blast echoed out from the past.
Blackwater, the mercenary organisation disgraced for its trigger-happy behaviour during the occupation of Iraq, took out a curiously timed full-page advert in the gun-and-hunting magazine Recoil.
It was stark. Black. There was the company’s distinctive bear’s-paw logo. And three words: WE ARE COMING.
It has ominous implications.
Many military analysts and international affairs think-tanks argue such mercenary groups are thinly-veiled fronts for state-backed intervention. But the corporate nature of the combattants gives them ‘plausible deniability’ to avoid international outcry.
It’s being called the ‘Grey Zone’, because of its legally dubious nature.
BUSINESS OF WAR
Trump’s pullout from Syria has already raised eyebrows, given the announcement came just hours after the US President hung-up on a phonecall to Turkey’s autocratic President Tayyip Ergodan.
That call had clinched a $US3.5 billion deal to supply Turkey with advanced air defence systems.
Turkey, a NATO ally, is actively oppressing the Kurdish ethnic-religious group in its own country. And it has been attacking the US-allied Kurds in Syria and Iraq whenever it gets the opportunity. Those opportunities will dramatically increase once US forces have withdrawn.
Just one day later, shortly after Defence Secretary Matis resigned over Trump’s treatment of his allies, the President also announced a dramatic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
The US has been embroiled in Afghanistan since it sent in troops shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US mainland. Like Russia and the UK before them, it has met with little success in subduing the mountain tribesmen.
But Trump’s critics warn these abrupt pullouts will produce dramatic power vacuums.
And the likes of Russia, China and Iran will be keen to step in.
Now it seems private armies such as Blackwater may also want a piece of the action.
Mercenary groups are no stranger to the Syrian conflict. Russia’s shady Wagner group is believed to have suffered more than 100 casualties when it took part in a Syrian Government attack against an encampment manned by US Marines and Kurdish troops in February.
Wagner defines itself as a “security services” company. But the international community has sanctioned its business operations due to its ongoing activities in Ukraine. It is believed to have several hundred ‘contractors’ fighting in Syria.
Wagner is just one of many such ‘ambiguous’ mercenary groups fighting in the world’s hot spots.
And Blackwater is likewise no stranger to controversy. It was banned from operating in Iraq after its trigger-happy operatives opened fire in a crowded Baghdad public square.
At least 20 civilians were reportedly killed.
Since then Blackwater has attempted to ‘rebrand itself’ with a name change after being sold-off by its original owners.
Now the US Military Times reports Blackwater’s original CEO has been actively lobbying the Trump White House administration. And, according to NBC News, Trump liked the idea.
Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince argues the now 17-year Afghan War is “a total failure.” In the past year, Prince has been using media appearances to promote such a privatisation
Prince, however, has no known official ties to the current incarnation of his old Blackwater, renamed Constellis after being sold to the Apollo Holdings Group. He now heads Hong Kong-based security firm Frontier Services Group.
Prince’s sister, however, is President Trump’s personal appointee to the role of US Secretary of Education — Betsy Devos.
‘MERCHANT OF DEATH’
The old Blackwater, Constellis, is still active in Afghanistan. It has a headquarters — called Camp Integrity — near the Kabul Airport. Military Times says it has leased extra space at the facility in order to accommodate a further 800 personnel.
Again, Prince’s involvement is unknown.
But he has previously told NBC News that he will launch a full-scale media blitz to promote his mercenary agenda, and that Trump and his cabinet will be lobbied.
Prince says he wanted the entire NATO mission scrapped. He claimed he could do the same job with just 6000 privately contracted mercenaries, backed by 2000 international special forces troops.
The idea had been rejected outright by Mattis as Defence Secretary. He saw it as a severe risk to US national security.
“When Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatising it is probably not a wise idea,” Mattis told reporters during a rare appearance in the Pentagon Briefing Room in August.
Mattis also made a veiled warning about the potential impact of mercenary involvement: “It’s enormously easier to be the criminal in a town than it is to be the policeman. And that’s true whether you’re in Ghazni, Afghanistan or anywhere else”.
With his departure, that opinion may no longer hold sway.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton in August said he was open to the idea.
“I’m always open to new ideas,” Bolton said in response to a question on the subject. “I’m not going to comment on what [Trump’s] thinking is. That’ll ultimately be the president’s decision,” he added.
Prince, however, is adamant.
“What I am proposing will end the conflict, save the lives of hundreds of US armed forces personnel (and thousands of Afghans), and will cost only a fraction of what we currently spend. To emphasise, this is not a privatisation of the war effort as has been wrongly stated by my critics. It is actually a reduction in the number of private contractors engaged in Afghanistan,” Prince said in a statement.