This month, the US war in Afghanistan turns 17. Americans born after the conflict began can now enlist in the armed forces. It’s a war in which all parties have committed war crimes and grave human rights abuses, and civilian casualties have reached new highs. But Americans and Afghans looking for solutions to end the war should not lose sight that some approaches may exacerbate abuses and undermine what fragile justice systems exist.
During a televised interview in Kabul last week, Erik Prince, billionaire businessman and brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, pitched a plan to an Afghan audience to privatize the fighting. Prince said he could end the war in “six months after the program is fully ramped,” using “contracted veteran mentors” to support Afghan forces.
Private contractors, including employees of Blackwater, who have made up a large proportion of US forces in Afghanistan since 2001, do not directly report to the military. While they can be prosecuted for crimes in US courts under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, they rarely are. Prince said his forces would be subject to Afghan law.
Prince’s company, Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, has been implicated in serious crimes in Iraq. On September 16, 2007, Blackwater employees opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 17. Although five Blackwater employees were indicted on murder and manslaughter charges on December 31, 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictment. The case was reopened in 2013. On October 22, 2014, one Blackwater employee, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, and three others were given 30-year sentences for involuntary manslaughter. However, an appeals court threw out Slatten’s conviction and called for a retrial in 2017. On September 6, 2018, that trial ended in a mistrial.
Afghanistan already has a poor track record prosecuting members of its security forces implicated in serious human rights abuses, including killing civilians. Given the impunity already enjoyed by the security forces, placing them under the command of private security contractors could further undermine accountability.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis rejected Prince's proposal, as has Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. They recognize Afghanistan doesn’t need foreign contractors operating as a law onto themselves. President Trump should listen.