No one knew exactly what to expect from Donald Trump’s “path forward” address on Afghanistan on Monday night. It was billed for prime time television in the US and Mr Trump’s defence secretary, a retired general, heightened anticipation by admitting the president “wants to be the one to announce it to the American people”. Mr Trump wanted, said James Mattis, to “explain” his administration’s Afghan strategy to the people himself.
This prompted some speculation. What was Mr Trump, the third US president to be dealing with the problem of Afghanistan, going to say about a politically testy subject? As it turned out, he simply rebranded the operation — from nation-building to fighting terrorists.
But some extraordinary options had been touted around Washington. They were even seriously discussed by the generals, at the insistence of the Trump White House. The proposals included a new US focus on extracting Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth, cutting off all aid to Pakistan for failing to support counterterrorism operations sufficiently and outsourcing some of the Afghan operation to private contractors.
Mr Trump, a political outlier, with the outlier’s view on some of America’s foreign policy headaches, was said to be seeking a winning new deal in Afghanistan. Late last month, he ominously explained his administration’s delay in articulating a strategy for Afghanistan as follows: “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”
As a businessman who harped on about “great deals” on the campaign trail, Mr Trump clearly saw no profit of any sort in the Afghan stalemate. As a politician with a transactional view of foreign relations, the $25 billion or more spent by the US every year in Afghanistan seemed an outrageous waste with no hope of a return on investment. More than at any time in America’s longest war, there seemed to be no cut-and-dried US strategy worth pursuing for Afghanistan.
This is dismal but hardly surprising. The Taliban insurgency is determined and Afghanistan’s cruelly misnamed National Unity government is fighting itself. Last month’s quarterly report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the balance between the government and armed groups remained at 2016 levels — 60 per cent with the government, 40 with the Taliban or other entities. Finally, almost everyone agrees there are no good options for the US with respect to Afghanistan any more. Laurel Miller, the last person to fill the now-abolished post of US state department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently said “the status quo is clearly not working.” And Douglas Wissing, who wrote two books on Afghanistan after embedding with US forces three times, put it in stark terms: “This is a lost war”.
In this gloomy scenario, it becomes easier to understand the lure of an unconventional plan to employ mercenaries to fight an unwinnable war. But is it all that unconventional? Hasn’t the US, and some other countries, already been using soldiers of fortune to wage politically difficult wars? In 2015, it was revealed that Nigeria brought in South African mercenaries to help fight Boko Haram. The British army has long paid Gurkhas from Nepal to serve and sacrifice in distant wars. Sean McFate, a former US mercenary and now associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, says that the percentage of contractors in the US armed forces rose from 10 per cent in the Second World War to 50 per cent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his 2014 book, The Modern Mercenary, Prof McFate explained that the end of the Cold War created an opening for private armies. And with America’s wars painfully lengthening to span nearly a generation, contractors, as the Americans call them, have become a necessary part of the bring-home-the-troops political strategy.
So why the consternation over the recent proposals to send mercenaries to Afghanistan? Perhaps it’s the prominence the idea received. And news that Mr Trump saw merit in the plan. Actually, there were two separate but similar plans, both put forward by US businessmen who have profited from military contracting. The one advanced by Erik Prince, a former Navy seal who founded the private security firm Blackwater, has received more attention than that from Stephen Feinberg, who owns the military contractor DynCorp International. This is at least partly because Mr Prince’s sister serves as Mr Trump’s education secretary.
Mr Prince also drew a parallel between his proposal and British colonial rule in India. He suggested a “viceroy” to oversee the “private military units”, and an East India Company-style entity to run Afghanistan to America’s benefit.
Though the age of formal empire is long over and the use of mercenaries is prohibited by international law, it is surely a measure of US frustration over Afghanistan that the idea received such play.
Rashmee Roshan Lall spent a year at the US Mission in Afghanistan from autumn 2011, among diplomats and contractors