It’s a year since the US de facto transferred power to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in an absolute shambles of an exit.
Could it have been different? One man who has some opinions is Erik Prince, the founder of the private military contracting company known as Blackwater.
For the most part, Prince is a man most people in polite society love to hate. The mainstream press has him down as the worst of the right-wing Republican crazy – not least because he’s armed.
But whatever one instinctively thinks about the guy, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have a unique insight into global political affairs. He has more experience on the ground than almost anyone making policy decisions in Washington.
In a nearly four-hour interview with Shawn Ryan published on July 4 — an obscure little podcast I found via my “Soldier of Fortune” RSS feed — Prince goes deep into everything from his experiences working for “the agency” in Afghanistan to dealing with the backlash against contractors in Washington. If you have four hours spare, I do recommend a listen.
Despite being online for over a month the video is yet to catch on with the mainstream press, who would no doubt find lots wrong with it. (Not least because Prince manages to come across as entirely reasonable.) By the time I listened to the whole thing on Thursday, the interview had amassed nearly 600,000 views — albeit with a mostly target “veteran” audience. The legions of comments submitted on the video are worth a read in their own right, as they very clearly indicate that the veteran community looks up to the man. As Prince himself notes, veteran these days is just a euphemism for contractor, which in turn is just a euphemism for mercenary.
There’s no doubt Prince has some pretty colourful war stories and cutting criticisms of the US power structure.
Given the man has more capacity than anyone to cross the Rubicon with a private army it’s probably worth taking time to understand his worldview.
I do not consider myself a military or geopolitical expert, so there is a good chance I’m not seeing the big picture here. But I can’t deny that a lot of what Prince says resonates with my current thinking and/or experience of the world. This especially applies to his matter-of-fact economic analysis.
Prince points to the failure of the West’s attempt to bring China into the liberal fold via a strategy of making it rich. He says this strategy is responsible for much of what ails us. He also blames the over-domination of corporate monopolies and a lack of competition for entrenching an overly bureaucratic and ineffective state system. Nor is he a fan of easy money. He has some fairly clear-cut thoughts about the politicisation (or deneutralisation as I call it ) of the dollar — as well as the role that Russian sanctions are likely to play in further undermining the global reserve currency. Can’t fault him on any of that.
There’s also a fascinating bit where he talks about the misallocation of capital in Afghanistan. How the failure to tap Afghan resources, including oil from the Amu Darya, created one of the most expensive supply chains in history. He says out of the $60bn the US was spending on Afghanistan per year, a huge chunk of that was being spent on fuel costs — largely because the fuel was being routed via the Mediterranean by boat through to Pakistan and by truck into the country. All the way it had to pay Taliban tolls. That created an overall fuel cost of $250 per gallon he says. I haven’t corroborated the numbers, but if that’s true and not a slip of the tongue — because it’s an absolutely insane figure, and chances are he meant per barrel which would still be three times the average cost — It would definitely justify investing in the development of the Amu Darya field and a small modular refinery, as he allegedly recommended.
The spiralling cost structures of the US military are another thing Prince takes aim at. One of his key points is that Blackwater was lean and could operate at a fraction of the cost. Critics have dwelled on the upfront sums the soldiers were getting, presenting it as war profiteering, but these he notes had to account for all sorts of additional costs. “Yes our apparent cash compensation was much higher but when you look at all the other allowances, housing allowances, the exchange rates, the insurance — all the other stuff, our pay was comparable but not higher to what an active duty seal would be getting, but it’s just the apparent upfront cash was much more visible,” he tells Shawn.
In his earliest contract negotiations with the State Department, meanwhile, he says he was guided to inflate his true costs by officials as much as possible. As he notes in the conversation (my emphasis):
“I remember the first contact we ever got from the State Department was from the ATAP programme, the anti-terrorism assistance programme, and they wanted us to train the Colombian presidential detail and the Greek presidential detail — because this was right before the Olympics were going to be in Greece. And we put the whole proposal together, gave it to State and they kicked it back to us and said you can’t submit this it’s just not credible.
“I said why? They said the price is so low you can’t submit this into our system because it will not be viewed as credible it’s so low. So we increased the price by sixty per cent, resubmitted it and okay that was acceptable.
“Coming from our perspective and of being vertically integrated — and we knew what our costs were — one of the great disciplines I tried to push on the team was activity-based cost. Let’s figure out what everything costs us to do so we’re not guessing. So we had gotten good at squeezing as many inefficiencies out of those processes that we could — so by doing a firm fixed price contract we had very good margins.”
Prince gushes about the effectiveness of Blackwater when it first entered the operational field in Afghanistan in 2003. Key to that operational success, he says, was the fact that Blackwater guys engaged directly with locals and deployed long-term alongside them. They knew the turf. They were nimble. They were mission-oriented. This contrasts with the US military who served in short rotations, were largely discouraged from engaging with locals and too often than not deployed in a blunt and haphazard manner.
Is he lying? I don’t think so. The account certainly gels with my personal experience.
I was in Kabul in May 2003. How I ended up there is a weird and long-winded story for another day. Suffice to say, it didn’t take me long to figure out that war reporting was not for me. Ten days in an active war zone, however, has a habit of imprinting on one’s memory.
What I will never forget, however, was the mercenary-operated guest house I stayed in, the people I met there and how they compared to the soldiers I encountered securing the US diplomatic base. The mercenaries, mostly former US Rangers and former British officer types, had set themselves up as an entrepreneurial business on all fronts. By day they were running Gurkhas in private security detachments for Hamid Karzai, by night they were making sure I had enough fresh towels in my room.
Fellow guests included the Norwegian police (in town to train a new Afghan force), idiot independent journalists like me and commercial operators working on telecoms infrastructure — among many others.
Here are some shots I took of the guest house grounds and my room:
Little did I know that the business model they had engineered was about to be commercialised on a massive level by Blackwater.
Back then, the stories I encountered around the dinner table centred on the nights the guys spent out in the mountains doing their turn with the local garrisons, mostly comparing notes (who had had the crazier experience etc). This supports exactly what Prince was saying in the interview.
I wasn’t personally too impressed by the de facto war glamourisation — and in fact, the sense I departed with was that most of the guys there were in it for the adrenalin and the war stories, not the money. But the mercs weren’t the only ones guilty of that. This was true of almost everyone I encountered on the ground. Journalists and NGO workers were getting equally intoxicated on the thrill of being somewhere they could talk about later. (Yep, this includes me. And here I am telling that war story.)
But there was one particular experience at the US base that was probably most indicative of the problems on the ground.
As I was queuing to get through the security barrier, I overheard a young US squaddie ribbing a local Afghan who had come to drop something off. In the course of processing the man, the squaddie had somehow discovered that Afghans don’t drink alcohol. I can’t remember the exact context, but I do remember the squaddie’s over-the-top reaction to the news — stressing it was “insane” that Afghans couldn’t drink alcohol. “What like not even a drop?” “Not even for Christmas?” “You’re kidding me, man!”
The Afghan courteously replied that he was a Muslim and it was against his religion. Further tone-deaf exclamations of disbelief followed. Was it a one-off? Maybe. Somehow, however, I sense the lack of understanding of local custom and the general lack of tact was more common at the US base than not. The mercs, on the other hand, not only knew the standard local customs, they knew the non-standard customs too (i.e. which factions happily drank alcohol regardless.)
Based on that experience, what Prince says went wrong in Afghanistan seems plausible to me.
Notably, Prince directs criticism at the lack of clear mission-structure on the ground and uncertainty over mission parameters and objectives. All of this, he argues, added to the government funding sinkhole on the ground and indirectly encouraged local corruption. He has been remarkably consistent on this topic.
In 2017, Prince published an oped in the WSJ arguing that what America needed to succeed in Afghanistan was a directly accountable structure including a figurehead — akin to a viceroy — that could be held responsible if and when things went wrong. This was seen by the mainstream as highly controversial, because it harked back to imperialist structures. It would make the implicit explicit.
Lacking the ability to appoint a viceroy, Prince went on to argue in favour of a reversion to the original tactics that had worked in the early days of Blackwater’s presence in Afghanistan– i.e. the shoulder-to-shoulder multi-year deployments alongside local counterparts. In Prince’s mind, this could be best achieved with a transfer of power from the Department of Defense to a more nimble “agency guided” deployment.
Not all would agree with that assessment. Noted military analyst Edward Luttwak — now on Ukraine’s disinformation black list — argued in March this year that by the time Biden was pulling troops out of Afghanistan in 2021, the agency had been consumed by equally compromising factors making it equally out-of-touch.
So what can we learn from this? There’s a lot to be drawn out from Prince’s views on things that go beyond Afghanistan.
Other notable points in the interview include Prince’s thoughts about bitcoin, crypto and gold. His concern about the rise of a “social credit system” surveillance state, which he says he will fight tooth and nail against. His role in running an assassination bureau that operated in “soft” jurisdictions like Germany. How the Russians had invited him to basically start what would become the Wagner group, but he turned them down in a move that he says proved he wasn’t a mere profiteer. And his experiences in Eastern Europe as a kid and how they informed his opinion of communism. And much more…
That a mercenary favours gold and bitcoin and emphasises the importance of paying good wages to soldiers, of course, shouldn’t really be that surprising. It was true in Julius Caesar’s day, and it remains true today.
But that’s kind of the key point of this interview. It emphasises the degree to which the more things change, the more they actually stay the same. The same old forces still influence everything. The mercenary field may not be the oldest profession in the world, but it’s certainly high up there. And those who have the capacity to raise private armies are politically contentious for a reason.
When the opposition becomes the resistance
The big takeaway for me is that this is further evidence of the fact that most commentators are not reading the Western political situation correctly. They are viewing it in the context of conventional oppositional forces in a system we all agree on.
That’s the wrong reading. In reality, the West is undergoing an ideological split that has turned conventional opposition politics into resistance politics. Whether you are part of the resistance on the left or the right, the conventional rules of the system do not apply. You do not identify with the system anymore.
But the media is also wrong to frame the collapse of “belief in the system” as somehow historically exceptional. It isn’t. History is full of ideological struggles and schisms of this sort. And this must be acknowledged in media coverage. This is why it is time to start reporting on internal domestic issues the way foreign correspondents have always reported on politically unstable foreign countries. Or the way Herodotus approached his histories.
That means simultaneously acknowledging that:
- On the left, the resistance mentality is forming because of fears that fringe and hostile “fascistic” forces (non-democratic in nature) are out to suspend or unwind all the “progress” that has been collectively achieved in the West until now. That, in their mind, justifies “ends justify the means” thinking, including dirty tricks, civil disobedience and refusal to obey the law.
- On the right, the resistance mentality is forming because of a feeling that fringe and nefarious “communistic” forces (non-democratic in nature) have infiltrated the system, dispossessed the voices of the patriots and occupied the system. The fact they are “living under occupation” in their mind justifies “ends justify the means” thinking, including dirty tricks, civil disobedience and refusal to obey the law.
Since each side sees the other as traitorous, and as a mirror of itself, merely getting more and more outraged about what the other is only going to feed the radicalisation feedback loop further. Each projects upon the other its own worst fears. What it sees as virtuous in itself it sees as evil in the other.
This, more than ever, is the time for diplomacy and for an anthropological perspective (or what Gillian Tett calls anthro vision).
A good historical analogue is the life and times of Jozef Pilsudski, who might be described as the Erik Prince of his day (though to be fair history is scattered with thousands of such examples). He too was seen as either a hero or a villain depending on one’s political or national perspective. But when Poland was literally “off the map”, it was he who deployed his uniquely proficient leadership skills to raise armies to win back Polish territories, notably playing all sides until he was in a position to gain what he wanted from those who had come out on top in WW1.
Here’s a small flavour of what I mean from his Wiki:
On the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in the summer of 1904, Piłsudski traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he tried unsuccessfully to obtain that country’s assistance for an uprising in Poland. He offered to supply Japan with intelligence to support its war with Russia, and proposed the creation of a Polish Legion from Poles, conscripted into the Russian Army, who had been captured by Japan. He also suggested a “Promethean” project directed at breaking up the Russian Empire, a goal that he later continued to pursue. Meeting with Yamagata Aritomo, he suggested that starting a guerrilla war in Poland would distract Russia and asked for Japan to supply him with weapons. Although the Japanese diplomat Hayashi Tadasu supported the plan, the Japanese government, including Yamagata, was more skeptical. Piłsudski’s arch-rival, Roman Dmowski, travelled to Japan and argued against Piłsudski’s plan, discouraging the Japanese government from supporting a Polish revolution because he thought it was doomed to fail. The Japanese offered Piłsudski much less than he hoped; he received Japan’s help in purchasing weapons and ammunition for the PPS and their combat organisation, and the Japanese declined the Legion proposal.
In the fall of 1904, Piłsudski formed a paramilitary unit (the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party, or bojówki) aiming to create an armed resistance movement against the Russian authorities. The PPS organized demonstrations, mainly in Warsaw; on 28 October 1904, Russian Cossack cavalry attacked a demonstration, and in reprisal, during a demonstration on 13 November, Piłsudski’s paramilitary opened fire on Russian police and military. Initially concentrating their attention on spies and informers, in March 1905 the paramilitary began using bombs to assassinate selected Russian police officers.
In 1908, Piłsudski transformed his paramilitary units into an “Association for Active Struggle” (Związek Walki Czynnej, or ZWC), headed by three of his associates, Władysław Sikorski, Marian Kukiel and Kazimierz Sosnkowski.The ZWC‘s main purpose was to train officers and noncommissioned officers for a future Polish Army. In 1910, two legal paramilitary organizations were created in the Austrian zone of Poland, one in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), and one in Kraków, to conduct training in military science. With the permission of the Austrian officials, Piłsudski founded a series of “sporting clubs”, then the Riflemen’s Association, for cover to train a Polish military force. In 1912, Piłsudski (using the pseudonym “Mieczysław“) became commander-in-chief of a Riflemen’s Association (Związek Strzelecki). By 1914, they increased to 12,000 men. In 1914, while giving a lecture in Paris, Piłsudski declared, “Only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation”, arguing that Polish independence can only be achieved through military struggle against the partitioning powers.