WASHINGTON ― Last week at Fort Myer military base in Virginia, President Donald Trump gave a speech outlining his new policy in Afghanistan, which was in fact not so very different from the previous administration’s policy in Afghanistan.
“My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said. “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office ― in other words, when you’re president of the United States.”
He went on to say that he would be sending more troops ― estimates have suggested around 4,000 ― without committing to any deadlines for pulling out.
Trump’s U-turn came as bad news to Erik Prince, founder of the private security company formerly called Blackwater, whose employees were accused of committing a number of crimes during the Iraq War, including the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, on Sept. 16, 2007. The incident sparked numerous federal investigations, and Prince sold the company in 2010.
Now he’s the chairman of Frontier Services Group, a logistics company based in the United Arab Emirates, and he feels newly emboldened by Trump’s election. In May, the 48-year-old former Navy SEAL wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal advocating a completely different solution in Afghanistan. Prince’s five-point plan suggested that, instead of sending U.S. troops, private contracted soldiers ― including U.S. and NATO veterans, Prince has said elsewhere ― should be used alongside U.S. Special Forces troops. They would serve under the command of a “viceroy,” who would coordinate all military strategy and report to the president.
“There are too many cooks,” Prince wrote, outlining the financial waste (approximately $1 trillion) and the massive damage to U.S. lives (around 2,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries) since the war began 16 years ago.
Prince’s views are popular with some inside the White House and on Capitol Hill, where he is scheduled to meet with 50 members of Congress next week. I met with him on Monday in Washington, D.C., to discuss how close he came to convincing the administration to go his way and what he plans to do for the rest of Trump’s tenure. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your Wall Street Journal piece got a lot of attention in Washington. Did you ever speak to the president about it?
We didn’t meet about it, but he read it, and I’m told he circulated it around. I wrote it for an audience of one, and it worked.
This was after [national security adviser] H.R. McMaster had asked for 70,000, 80,000 troops. McMaster basically wanted a redo of the Obama surge, where we have tens of thousands of Americans come back to Afghanistan and do the fighting there. I think that’s a bad idea. I think the president did, too.
So Trump reads it. Then what happens?
Well, I get calls from McMaster and from [then-White House chief strategist] Steve Bannon. They say, “Hey, the president saw your article. Please come in and tell us what you were thinking.” So I came in, and I gave a presentation [to Bannon, McMaster and then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus] that fleshed out more of the points made in the op-ed and hit the notion of vetting contractors and all the rest.
Your use of the word “viceroy” in the op-ed stirred up a lot of controversy, raising questions of colonial power and accountability. Surely, the Afghans would not want to answer to a viceroy?
To be very clear, when I say a viceroy, that is not to rule over Afghanistan, but rather to harmonize what has been a very chaotic U.S. policy. Between the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there has been no unity of commands. Seventeen commanders in 16 years. Come on. It’s a joke. It’s embarrassing.
Talk me through the timeline. You write the piece. You get called in to talk with McMaster and Bannon and Priebus and …
And H.R. automatically hates it.
Does he say that to you?
In other words, he’s called you in because the president is interested in your ideas, not because he wants to meet you.
Correct. I went through the slides, and he completely discounted it. The nature of the questions he asked made it clear that it was going to be an all-Army solution, period.
Give me an example.
I pointed out the challenge of deploying U.S. troops the way they had been for 16 years, where they go for six or nine months and they leave and all that local knowledge leaves with them.
Here’s the thing. Every U.S. trooper is statistically at the highest risk for the first 60 days they’re in country, because most of those guys, it’s their first deployment and they’re figuring it out. Meanwhile, the same Taliban that have been there for 16 years, the ones that have survived, are the smartest, most capable fighters.
They see the Americans come and go every six to nine months. They know exactly how they patrol. They know exactly how they clear mines. They know exactly how they communicate. They know exactly the response times for aircraft. They know the deal, so doing the same thing for another 16 or 17 years means the outcome is going to be the same. It’s like the last two kids that were killed two weeks ago, blown up in a roadside bomb in their fully armored vehicle. Terrible. What a loss. What a waste.
What was McMaster’s response to that argument?
He largely just refused to answer, and I wasn’t there to debate him. I was there to pitch an idea.
What happened after the meeting?
Steve and Reince liked the concept. They saw it as something the president would or should consider. A couple weeks later, I got a call from Steve saying, “OK, lay it out. Figure out what that costs. And tell me exactly because the typical Beltway pundits will discount a low number.”
So I did a very hard number: 91 aircraft, 84,000 flight hours, all the food, fuel, ordinance, man days, insurance, 3,200 ground mentors [Special Forces members or contractors who attach to Afghan army battalions], the whole thing. It comes out to about five and a half thousand personnel. It was 7 percent of what they’re spending now, way less than $4 billion.
Still, if you got what you suggested, you’d get a big cut from that, no?
What I’d say is that Elon Musk advocates for private space flight. Is he demonized for that? I would be very happy to compete for a solution that saves American lives and saves the taxpayers $40 billion a year. I will not apologize for that in any way.
You wrote about the vulnerability of air power in Afghanistan. Presumably you also mentioned that in your meeting?
Yes. The U.S. has completely failed to deliver on this. There is no adequate Afghan air force, ranging from maintenance deficiencies to pilot training shortages to operational support capability.
My old company, we used to have 26 aircraft in Afghanistan doing that kind of support for the U.S. Army. So even as large as the U.S. military is ― and it’s the most expensive military in the world ― they still had a requirement for extra aviation capacity. So they rented it from the private sector. I thought, Why don’t they let the Afghans do the same thing?
The premise of what I’m laying out with ground mentors and with the air package is that they serve as an adjunct in the Afghan forces, wearing an Afghan uniform, Afghan rules of engagement. The premise of this is a true Afghan-ization.
One big question is what happens if something goes wrong, like it did in Iraq with Blackwater. Who is accountable?
Sure, if the guys do an evil act, they can be held to account under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with a trial held in Kabul. I thought long and hard about that. A cell of JAG [Judge Advocate General] lawyers can be detailed to handle this for the contractors that are there, just like they’re there for any active duty forces.
I assume your position on this is related to the yearslong case against a few Blackwater contractors for the killing of 14 people in Iraq.
Well, a week and a half ago, the appeals court threw out the murder conviction [of Nicholas Slatten, who had been sentenced to life in prison], and they threw out the sentences of the other guys. It was a pretty stinging review of the federal government. They still have to be resentenced. I think they’ll get time served.
The issue there was this: If the government had asked us, we would have preferred to be under the Uniform Code of Military Justice [which regularly tries military crimes where they occur], because all the guys that were doing that job were former military veterans. They know the deal. Having the trial close to battle makes way more sense than [having it] 7,000 miles away in a D.C. courtroom with people who have fortunately never seen the aftereffects of a car bomb. But the State Department prohibited that because they didn’t want their people [civilian government employees] held under that standard.
Don’t get me started on the State Department.
It was a turf issue between the agencies. Leave it at that.
OK, back to your discussions with the administration. After Bannon and McMaster and Priebus, who did you talk to next?
I saw [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis three weeks after that first meeting at the White House, and he just fired away with questions ― practical questions ― for an hour. They were questions like: How could the men operate? Under what authority? How would they be accountable? Basically, how would this actually work? He is a historian. He gets it, He was not as quick to discard [my ideas] as many in the Pentagon bubble would be.
But he also pushed back. He said, Why do you say we have to change the rules of engagement [so a viceroy could have greater autonomy]? I showed him pictures of open-air Taliban victory parades in Afghanistan, dozens of captured U.S. vehicles, hundreds of Taliban fighters with their Taliban flag beating their chests, hoorah. They’re winning.
I later heard from multiple people at NSC [the National Security Council] that Secretary Mattis said at a national security Cabinet meeting that I gave the best analysis of the root problems that have to be fixed in Afghanistan of any he’s seen.
Who were you picturing as a viceroy? A civilian? A military person?
Absolutely not a general. We have enough generals. I was thinking about a guy who had a military and intelligence background in his early career, who spent a long time in business, was very successful at it, and who’s also done something very senior in the intelligence community.
It’s not for everybody because that job will, of course, be vilified. You’re making difficult decisions. He’s going to leave a life of total luxury here and go live in a place where he’s worried about being blown up.
Do you know many people like that?
I know one.
I’ll just say that I floated a name to Steve [Bannon]. He liked it. I took him in and he met him.
You took the viceroy candidate to the White House?
Yeah, but again, it’s a moot point.
Did he meet the president?
No, but the president knows him and his wife pretty well. And we’ll have to leave it at that.
The weekend before Trump made his Afghan announcement, he went to Camp David with many members of his Cabinet and national security teams. I heard you were supposed to be there, too.
I was called by three or four reporters saying they wanted comment because they heard I was supposed to go. That was news to me. We were actually at that time hosting a bunch of wounded veterans at my family’s ranch out in Wyoming.
But I think it was a sliding door moment because my concern is that the only people in that room who challenged the consensus were Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions, who I understand spoke passionately about the need to just leave because it’s a mess, and [Office of Management and Budget director] Mick Mulvaney, who as the budget guy said, “Don’t keep signing up for $50 billion forever.” If there’d been another voice there who could have spoken rationally on a cheaper way to accomplish the mission without having to have a whole bunch of uniform forces to do it, it might have carried the day. If Steve Bannon had not been fired, he would have been the voice.
Why do you think the president made the decision he did on Afghanistan?
I think it was partly because of the fiasco in Charlottesville and all the media heat from that. I don’t think the president wanted to take any more pounding doing anything different in Afghanistan, so he went with the most establishment-type position. [Republican Sens.] Lindsey Graham and John McCain are praising him for it. That’s pretty much the Beltway establishment.
Do you have thoughts on Charlottesville?
We’ll narrow the scope of the interview and leave that out of it. I’m not going to give you multiple avenues to attack me. I still remember that recorder’s running.
Do you think that Trump will ever change course in Afghanistan?
I think the Afghan war has largely been ignored for the last eight years, and now that it’s Mr. Trump’s war, every casualty, every loss of an Afghan base will be reported, and they will hang it around his neck.
So the door isn’t closed for you and your ideas?
I don’t know. I would say, politically and operationally, the president needs to figure out how to end this thing. It’s his supporters who are doing the fighting and dying. I just saw a study that said that casualties were one of the big issues that swung voters to Trump in districts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They liked that he was outspoken. “Hey, let’s stop the same insanity we’ve been doing.”
Did you and Steve Bannon ever talk about using private contractors in areas beyond Afghanistan?
I’ve given other suggestions of places.
Where did you suggest?
That’s for next time. I’ll just say that there are a lot of places [where] the fires of insurgency have to be put out because these constant failed states export terrorism and refugees. That’s bad.
Have you ever met the president?
I’ve met him. I certainly met him during the transition. It was at an event; it was not preplanned. But I never met him on this.
What are your feelings about his presidency so far?
I still have high hopes that as a businessman who has restructured problematic or failing efforts, that he’s still going to come to the right conclusion on this.
Let’s move to the report in The Washington Post that claimed that the UAE, where your firm is based, set up a meeting in the Seychelles in January between you and someone close to Putin, with the idea that you’d create a “back channel” between the incoming Trump administration and Russia.
That was honestly a private business meeting that came about because [a Middle Eastern businessman I was talking to] said, “Hey, there’s this Russian guy you should meet.” I had a beer. I think he had a vodka. It was a quick meeting. I can drink a beer fast.
So the allegations of you setting up secret back channels …
Zero, totally baseless. The bizarre thing is, it’s connected to the left’s whole fantasy about this Trump-Russia election collusion, right? So I met with some Russian investment manager whose name I don’t remember in January, which is two months after the election. So if this grand conspiracy is true, why the hell would I need to meet with any Russians for any back channel stuff?
And the thing that really bothers me about it is the only reason The Washington Post got the story ― and I have zero doubt about this ― is from signals intelligence that the Obama administration was leaking. [Editor’s note: No proof of this has been reported.]
I don’t want to live in a bureaucratic super state with unlimited surveillance powers. There should be certain rights and privileges a citizen enjoys, and having your private business communications leaked by the security apparatus by a political party for political ends, that is full-stop wrong.
Did you write anyone to complain?
There are some electrons not worth wasting.
You seem very aware of the fact that you became a villain during the Iraq War.
Look, in Vietnam, the hard-core anti-war left went after the troops. In Iraq, they went after the contractors. It was politics. Blackwater represented everything they loved to hate and I was the sole owner. I didn’t have a board with a bunch of former generals. I didn’t pay all the Republican Party and the Democratic Party fundraising apparatuses, but it was a business group that executed exactly what the customer needed us to do. We grew and performed. It was actually built on merit, and politics always trumps merit.
It seemed as if you disappeared after the war ― at least until the WSJ op-ed.
Here’s the thing. In the Obama administration, I stopped trying. There was no point. Now, there’s a chance for a fair hearing.
You must enjoy feeling like you’re back in the game.
Well, I put everything else on hold to push a different approach in Afghanistan, and it’s been a big goose egg so far.
Do you think you’d revive Blackwater domestically?
Maybe. I still own the name. But I have no plans to start a U.S. defense contracting business.
Still, I would encourage any objective observer of all the insurgencies going on around the world to ask which one of them has the U.S. actually, directly assisted in ending. Which one?
Let the record show the witness said zero.
Language has been adjusted due to a slip of the tongue: Prince meant to say that the hard-core left criticized the troops during the Vietnam War, not World War II.