In 2007 a State Department convoy moved through Baghdad, headed for a meeting with the United States Agency for International Development. Along for the ride were contractors with private security firm Blackwater. Which at the time served as the State Department’s official security force when on diplomatic missions, until the convoy headed for the USAID meeting supposedly came under fire, something Iraqi officials later disputed vehemently, but none the less Blackwater security contractors opened fire. Leaving 17 Iraqis dead and Blackwater embroiled in controversy which left many Americans questioning the role private contractors should play in international conflict.
This was one event of many that prompted congress to look into American use of private contractors and reevaluate their role in conflicts overseas. A congressional committee determined private contractors were less accountable, less transparent, and more expensive than military forces. This all prompted congress to pass the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which pushed private contractors into the same legal category, and therefore under the same restrictions, as American soldiers abroad.
All of this controversy, coupled with other policy positions, ensured the Obama administration largely cut ties with Blackwater. Who has since rebranded twice and is now known as Academi. The company re-branded itself and while it was still a player in the world of private contracting, it refocused significantly towards security. However now that there is a new administration in the White House there has been new found life for those involved in what used to be Blackwater and the role of private contractors in American conflict abroad.
Recently senior advisor in the Trump White House, specifically Steve Bannon, were tasked with developing new options for the war in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times they turned to none other than Blackwater founder, Erik Prince and another big name in the private contracting world, Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire financier and owner of contractor Dynacorp. Both provided plans to retool the forces in Afghanistan in order to rely more heavily on private contractors.
“The conflict of interest in this is transparent,” Georgetown University professor and private contracting expert Sean McFate told the Times. Such a blatant move highlights the need for new strategies and the lengths to which people like Steve Bannon will go to provide them. Last week Bannon provided his plans to General Mattis and they were swiftly declined. Still, it shows a new administration willing to seek new options and people like Erik Prince are more than willing to provide them.
Prince has recently made the rounds in the media defending the ideas he and Feinberg proposed to Bannon. On NPR’s On Point with Tom AshBrook, Prince openly compared his plans for Afghanistan to the British East India Company and their role in Afghanistan in the 19th century. Prince openly advocated for a “viceroy” propped up by private contractors in order to vest American’s new found control in the region. The alternative he suggested is more chaos and an empowered Taliban.
Should the Trump administration take Prince seriously it would represent a massive shift from the Obama administration which distanced itself from private contractors. Whether it comes to fruition or not, the Trump administration is actively courting people who directly compare their private contractors to the private machine the British used to colonize much of the world. That parallel couldn’t be more problematic if Prince tried to make it so and if private contractors role in conflicts past are any indication the real life implications of Prince pushing quite literally colonial policies will be infinitely more problematic than his parallels.