Trump’s troop withdrawal is a mercenary giveaway

Shadow armies stay behind

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U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to withdraw several thousand troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia before he leaves office in January. "It is President Trump's hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety," White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said. 

We here at Contention prefer to look at the business side of America's 19-year-long war in Afghanistan — not just who is leaving, but who is staying, who is making money, and the private actors who may be soon arriving. 

Troop withdrawal or no, more than 24,000 military contractors are set to remain in Afghanistan, an increase of 65% since Trump took office. Around 5,000 contractors —typically former special forces — work hired security jobs, more than the 4,000 uniformed U.S. soldiers in the country. The remaining 20,000 contractors work in areas such as translation, transportation and IT.

One clue about the possible direction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan: a proposal from Under Secretary of Defense Anthony Tata, who assumed the number three job in the Pentagon on Nov. 10. Last year, Tata and Erik Prince — founder of mercenary giant Academi, formerly known as Blackwater — offered to further privatize the war, replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a multinational, 6,000-strong force of guns-for-hire

"The private force will be almost entirely former military and law enforcement from multiple countries," Prince and Tata wrote in a Fox News op-ed. "Veterans serving again ensures experienced combat-seasoned personnel will be coaching, teaching, and mentoring indigenous forces."

Sixty percent of these 6,000 mercenaries will be former U.S. special forces, the other 40 percent will be former special forces from other countries — augmented by 2,000 remaining U.S. special forces troops who will "remain the lead element and provide the U.S. unilateral direct-action capabilities." 

The contractors will organize their mercenaries into three elements known as Military Mentor Teams (MMTs), Aviation Support Units (ASUs) and Governance Support Elements (GSEs). The 2,000 mercenaries deployed as ASUs will operate a fleet of fixed-wing and helicopter attack aircraft, medevac helicopters, and two combat surgical hospitals. 

The proposed cost: $7.5 billion per year, cheaper than what the U.S. spends now. But Pentagon officials believe Prince has downplayed the costs.

This wasn't the only time Prince pitched these ideas. He has repeatedly touted the merc plan during appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight, a show beamed directly into the White House. Prince also submitted a business proposal to the administration in summer 2017 — shortly after Trump took office — for a private air force of ground-attack planes and pilots for Afghanistan. Trump rejected this plan at the advice of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

That did not slow Prince down, however. He has also recently proposed a plan to search for rare earth minerals in some of Afghanistan's most volatile regions, allowing the United States to exploit valuable lithium for batteries, along with other deposits. Prince has pitched himself as a potential "viceroy" for Afghanistan, empowered to make decisions about military, State Department and intelligence community functions in the country. 

Senior military leaders do not think highly of Erik Prince. "He's an attention-seeking Kardashian who’s largely despised,” the Atlantic Council's Sean McFate, a former military contractor, told Rolling Stone. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, after shooting down Prince's proposal to privatize U.S. warmaking, said: "When Americans put their nation's credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea."

The record shows it. In 2019, Pence proposed an operation known as Project Opus to supply two Cobra H1 attack helicopters — acquired from Jordan — and a multinational team of mercenaries to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. The objective was to kill or capture a dozen people including Mahdi Al Harrati, the former mayor of Tripoli. 

The plan fell through, however, when the Jordanian government stopped the helicopter sale. The mercs nevertheless pressed on, attempting to acquire another aircraft once in Libya, which also failed. The men then escaped the country — possibly fleeing from an outraged Haftar — to Malta aboard speedboats acquired from Maltese arms dealer James Fenech, a former Prince business associate. 

A second mission known as Project Opus 2 also failed after Turkish troops in the country deployed air-defense systems covering Tripoli, putting a halt to the mission.

So behind the headlines promising a return of U.S. troops from our forever wars in the Middle East is a much grimmer truth: war will continue for people who’ve suffered from it for decades. Tata, Prince, and their associates have too much money to make from privatizing these conflicts. If Trump wants to finish this giveaway to a would-be "viceroy" he has only a few weeks left to put it into motion — and profit.

Our only investment advice: Duck and cover.

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Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps