Are Mercenaries Really a Cheaper Way of War?

Uniforms of the Madras Army, part of the military forces of the British East India Company, which contractor Erik Prince has suggested as a model for a mercenary takeover of the U.S. war in Afghanistan

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Uniforms of the Madras Army, part of the military forces of the British East India Company, which contractor Erik Prince has suggested as a model for a mercenary takeover of the U.S. war in Afghanistan

The founder of Blackwater says privatizing the 16-year war could save taxpayer money. History, both recent and farther back, suggests a different outcome.

The world is sliding in a strange direction when a Prince wishes to become a viceroy.

That’s Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary Academi, previously Xe, né Blackwater, who has been pushing a plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan. At 16 years, it’s the country’s longest war, it continues to cost huge sums of money—$40 billion this year alone—and there’s no obvious end in sight. So Prince’s plan is for the U.S. to turn the war over to mercenaries (perhaps, say, Academi) and to appoint a viceroy (perhaps, say, Erik Prince) to run the war.

USA Today reported Tuesday that Prince’s plan has the attention of the White House. One can see why that might be the case. Not only is Prince’s sister the secretary of education (she was Betsy Prince before she married and became Betsy DeVos), but President Trump has also reportedly expressed frustration about the war. “We aren’t winning. We are losing,” he said, according to NBC News, which also said he has considered sacking the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson.

Prince already floated this plan once before, in a May Wall Street Journal op-ed, but he reprised it with a short column in USA Today too:

The president can “restructure” the war, similar to a bankruptcy reorganization. By aligning U.S. efforts under a presidential envoy, all strategic decisions regarding humanitarian aid, military support and intelligence become laser-focused on creating a stable, self-supporting Afghanistan. Stability would give our troops an exit ramp. The envoy’s focus would be to support Afghan security forces from within, providing professional military leadership, reliable air support and business administration assistance. Those resources would be procured in precisely the way U.S. forces acquire material and manpower support. They hire it.

When Prince first suggested the plan, former mercenary Sean McFate wrote in The Atlantic that it was a bad idea—even if one left out the many black marks on Blackwater’s reputation from the conduct of the war in Iraq, and also even if one left out the fact that his exemplar for the viceroy role, General Douglas MacArthur, was fired by the president for abuse of power. Those legitimate worries aside, McFate warned that there plenty of other reasons to be wary: Mercenaries are susceptible to being hired away, tend to foment war where they go, and, essentially, lack the accountability that actual troops do.

The problems of accountability are familiar from Iraq. Just last week, a federal court tossed convictions against three former Blackwater employees involved in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad. The court ruled that prosecutors had overreached in what they charged the men with, meaning that though no one denies the horror of the incident, the men’s sentences will be shortened or eliminated.

There is also a moral hazard involved in outsourcing American foreign policy in a way that intends to put it out of sight and out of mind. As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic two years ago, the U.S. population is arguably already far too removed from war. Pushing those responsibilities to a private company only exacerbates the risk.

But the great mercenary hope keeps popping up for the simple reason that seems to offer the prospect of spending less while insulating American soldiers, Marines, and other service members from harm’s way. Prince, likening his prospective force to the British East India Company, which in effect ruled parts of India in the 18th and 19th centuries, argued in May:

An East India Company approach would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support. The U.S. military should maintain a small special-operations command presence in the country to enable it to carry out targeted strikes, with the crucial difference that the viceroy would have complete decision-making authority in the country so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions. A nimbler special-ops and contracted force like this would cost less than $10 billion per year, as opposed to the $45 billion we expect to spend in Afghanistan in 2017.

What Prince is outlining is an autonomous force that could operate without accountability either from voters, via their elected representatives, or from the prying concerns of human-rights officials in the government. On Tuesday, Prince added, “This approach would cost less than 20 percent of the $48 billion being spent in Afghanistan this year. Trump was hired to remake our government. There is no greater need for a restructuring than in Afghanistan.”

Yet the hope of a cheap force that is can be forgotten about is tenuous as well. The problem is that separating American wars from American soldiers is never as easy as it sounds.

Prince says that a mercenary force would save huge sums of money. What’s unclear is how that would work. In 2009, for example, the Congressional Budget Office found that in wartime, private security costs about the same as the U.S. military. (Savings come during times of peace, because taxpayers don’t have to pay contractors then—whereas they do have to maintain a standing army.)

Additional costs enter in less obvious ways. Take the Blackwater verdicts thrown out this week. The men were handed strict sentences for using machine guns to commit a violent crime, but the judges ruled that was unfair, since the U.S. military had required the men to carry the guns. Meanwhile, the U.S. has found itself occasionally pulled into lawsuits over mercenary liabilities. When plaintiffs have tried to sue companies like Blackwater and KBR, the companies have arguedthat they ought to enjoy the same immunity that the military does against certain lawsuits, since they are acting in lieu of the military. In other cases, they have claimed that the U.S. government agreed to assume liability.

Perhaps a viceroy’s contract could be written to ensure that none of these situations would apply, but the more ways a viceroy is severed from American government structures, the more it will be inclined, and empowered, to act autonomously.

And what happens when soldiers from the mercenary force come to the United States injured? Who will pay for their medical care, both immediately and for decades to come? Presumably, they would not be eligible for the same veterans’ benefits as actual soldiers, yet they would have been injured in the service of fighting a U.S. war, sent there by U.S. politicians.

This isn’t hypothetical. In 2011, a group of former contractors filed a class-action suit against, among others, Xe and KBR, saying they had been denied medical treatment and disability benefits. The suit didn’t fare well in court, but the problem posed by it would be essentially political, rather than legal. When contractors are the ancillary force, they’re much easier to ignore. When they’re the sole force, will politicians be able to turn away from de facto veterans? If not, the cost of the war will rise as the cost of care increases. That’s in addition to the costs posed if the U.S. enters new wars because of spillover from the Afghan viceroyalty.

Prince’s invocation of the East India Company as a model is, itself, a warning sign. Prince said on MSNBC that he was not advocating colonization, but the story of the company tells not how a sovereign nation successfully delegated power to a private company, but of how a private company ended up sucking a sovereign power farther into a foreign entanglement.

“I don’t think Erik Prince has much idea about the EIC,” John Keay, who wrote The Honourable Company, a history of the corporation, wrote in an email.

For most of its history, he noted, the company was a pure corporate concern. When it started taking over territory, the British government began regulating it more closely, appointing its top officers and establishing a board in London that helped run the company. In 1770, the company required a bailout from the British treasury.

“Roughly from 1785 until its dissolution in 1858, the EIC was a government surrogate. For ‘achievements’ in India the government could claim the credit, and for failings in India the Company could be made a scapegoat. Would this appeal to Prince?” Keay said. And when the company was dissolved, the end came because of a major popular uprising against it, which led the British government to take over all operations, including the company’s private military. One further result was that all Indians became British subjects—imposing a vastly larger national involvement and liability on London, not to mention what it imposed on the Indians.

“It seems to me that the Company’s story is the very reverse of what [Prince] is proposing,” Keay said. “It makes the case for government intervention, not retraction.”

In other words, Prince’s choice of the East India Company as a model might be a telling—but not for the reasons Prince believes.

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