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Trump Aides Recruited Businessmen to Devise Options for Afghanistan

(Last Updated On: July 11, 2017)

US President Donald Trump’s advisers recruited two businessmen who profited from military contracting to devise alternatives to the Pentagon’s plan to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, according to New York Times newspaper, which said that the move reflected the Trump administration’s struggle to define its strategy for dealing with the 16-year-old war.

Erik Prince, a founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, have developed proposals to rely on contractors instead of American troops in Afghanistan at the behest of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, The New York Times said, citing people briefed on the conversations.

Quoting an American official, the Times said Bannon sought out Defence Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on Saturday to try to get a hearing for their ideas. Mattis listened politely but declined to include the outside strategies in a review of Afghanistan policy that he is leading along with the national security adviser, Lt Gen H R McMaster, the newspaper said.

“The highly unusual meeting dramatizes the divide between Mr Trump’s generals and his political staff over Afghanistan, the lengths to which his aides will go to give their boss more options for dealing with it and the readiness of this White House to turn to business people for help with diplomatic and military problems,” the Times said.

“Soliciting the views of Prince and Feinberg certainly qualifies as out-of-the-box thinking in a process dominated by military leaders in the Pentagon and the National Security Council,” it said. “But it also raises a host of ethical issues, not least that both men could profit from their recommendations.”

Sean McFate, a professor at Georgetown University who wrote a book about the growth of private armies, “The Modern Mercenary”, was quoted as saying in the dispatch that the conflict of interest in this was transparent. “Most of these contractors are not even American, so there is also a lot of moral hazard.”

Last month, Trump gave the Pentagon authority to send more American troops to Afghanistan – a number believed to be about 4,000 – as a stopgap measure to stabilize the security situation there. But as the administration grapples with a longer-term strategy, Trump’s aides have expressed concern that he will be locked into policies that failed under the past two presidents.

Feinberg, whose name had previously been floated to conduct a review of the nation’s intelligence agencies, met with the president on Afghanistan, the paper said, citing an official, while Prince briefed several White House officials, including General McMaster.

Prince laid out his views in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May.

He called on the White House to appoint a viceroy to oversee the country and to use “private military units” to fill the gaps left by departed American soldiers. While he was at Blackwater, the company became involved in one of the most notorious episodes of the Iraq war, when its employees opened fire in a Baghdad square, killing 17 civilians.

After selling his stake in Blackwater in 2010, Prince mustered an army-for-hire for the United Arab Emirates, the paper said. He has cultivated close ties to the Trump administration; his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary.

“If Mr. Trump opted to use more contractors and fewer troops, it could also enrich DynCorp, which has already been paid $2.5 billion by the State Department for its work in the country, mainly training the Afghan police force,” the Times said. Feinberg controls DynCorp through Cerberus Capital Management, a firm he co-founded in 1992.

McFate, who used to work for DynCorp in Africa, said it could train and equip the Afghan Army, a costly, sometimes dangerous mission now handled by the American military. “The appeal to that,” he said, “is you limit your boots on the ground and you limit your casualties.” Some officials noted that under the government’s conflict-of-interest rules, DynCorp would not get a master contract to run operations in Afghanistan, according to the Times.

A spokesman for Feinberg declined to comment for the Times dispatch, and a spokesman for Prince did not respond to a request for comment.

The proposals Prince presented, a former American official said, hew closely to the views outlined in his Journal column “in essence, that the private sector can operate “cheaper and better than the military” in Afghanistan, the report said.

Feinberg, another official said, puts more emphasis than Prince on working with Afghanistan’s central government. But his strategy would also give the CIA. control over operations in Afghanistan, which would be carried out by paramilitary units and hence subject to less oversight than the military, it was pointed out.

The strategy has been called “the Laos option,” after America’s shadowy involvement in Laos during the war in neighbouring Vietnam, according to the Times. CIA contractors trained Laotian soldiers to fight Communist insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies until 1975, leaving the country under Communist control and with a deadly legacy of unexploded bombs. In Afghanistan until now, contractors have been used mainly for security and logistics.

“Whatever the flaws in these approaches – and there are many, according to diplomats and military experts – some former officials said it made sense to open up the debate,” the paper said.

Source: New York Times

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