Ending the Endless War? A New Strategy for Afghanistan

 EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Ending the Endless War? A New Strategy for Afghanistan

DATE: 11:30am-12:30pm 17th September 2018

VENUE: Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RS

SPEAKER: Erik Prince

EVENT CHAIR: Dr Alan Mendoza


Dr Alan Mendoza: Good afternoon and welcome to the Henry Jackson Society. Good afternoon? It is still good morning actually; it feels like the afternoon but its morning. Delighted so many of you are here today to hear from a man who has been affectionately dubbed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ but who we know as Erik Prince, in a very different way. Erik is a US-born entrepreneur, philanthropist, military veteran and a Navy Seal no less, and a private equity investor. He is best known probably for having founded Blackwater which is of course a global private security company. He sold it in 2010 having grown it to I suppose the market leader of these things around the world. He wrote a book about his experiences called Civilian Warrior. Of course he hasn’t been in retirement since then, he is currently the executive chairman of Frontier Resource Group which is a security, insurance, and logistics company operating in frontier markets internationally. But I think more pertinently for our purposes today, is someone who is still engaged very much in the battle of ideas and in trying to bring practical solutions to thorny problems. And is there a thornier problem than the Afghanistan war, raging now for 17 years at a huge cost with no end in sight, I’m not sure there is. I think Erik has a plan for potentially how to solve it which he is going to outline a little to us today and then take questions so please do give our guest a very warm welcome.

Erik Prince: Thank you. Can you hear me at the back? All right. People can certainly disagree on methods but I think there is one thing we can all agree on is that we’d like to end the war in Afghanistan and to keep a government upright that can control its own terrain and at least, especially from an American perspective, prevent another 9/11 style attack from hitting the US or some Western target. I wrote an op-ed a year ago, May, in the Wall Street Journal, and I wrote it for an audience of one, for the President to read and it worked. I am told he circled it in the paper, called in the National Security Advisor and said I don’t like your plan, I like this one, do this. Now, General McMaster is a three-star army officer who wanted to have a fourth star, so the idea of doing something unconventional to him I can see is probably a bridge too far. That being said, others in the White House paid attention to it and they called me in a number of times and they said well you think your plan can be done for less, prove it, price it up, show us what the budget would be, and because of my previous experience and my company’s experience, we were able to come up with a pretty detailed analysis. I’ve been paying attention to Afghanistan since 1998. I funded (inaudible) a year ago, a peace conference trying to get Zahir Shah, who was then the King in exile who was still sitting in Rome, to go back to Afghanistan to make a peace deal, long before 9/11. So I knew a lot of the players. We got involved after 9/11, in April of 2002, and already you could start to see the transition from a small special operations approach to the big army, big Pentagon approach and I remember saying to the President of the company, I said they are never going to be able to finish this thing and I bet you it will be left to someone else to finish. So now, almost a trillion dollars later, more than a trillion, 2400 American dead, hundreds of UK dead and thousands and thousands of wounded, tens of thousands of Afghan wounded, we are still left with a situation where the BBC just did an analysis, probably the most comprehensive one I’ve seen that shows the Afghan government only controls around 30% of the terrain, the other 70% is in enemy hands or is contested, which of course prevents any legitimate economic activity or investment and it leaves people very much trapped in short-term thinking. So I took a step back and said what are the root causes of the limited effectiveness? Because after 9/11 it was a few special operations personnel matched with a few CIA personnel backed by air power and Afghans and they devastated the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Relentless pursuit, very aggressive action, but when we went to effectively a rehash of the Soviet battle plan, we have gone backwards ever since. One of the root causes of that I believe and will try to address, well there are three parts. One is ground mentors, the need for continuity. When the US or NATO forces rotate there they go for 6-8 months. You spend the first few months getting to know the terrain, you’re productive for a couple of months, and these are even conventional forces moving with a, I would say, a slower, more plodding approach. So again they get to know the area, because in many cases these are soldiers who have never deployed overseas before, going to a completely new and hostile terrain and they have to figure it out. It takes them 2-3 months to do that, optimistically. And then they are productive for a few months and then they spend the last month packing up and getting ready to ship everyone home and they lift that unit up and they send them back home never to come back to the same area with no continuity. And no one in the US military and I think the British military has ever fundamentally addressed personnel rotation in 17 years to fix that. So how do you maintain continuity with the Afghan forces then? You use veterans, OK, you use veterans and you send them back as contractors. Everybody in America loves to praise military veterans, well here is another way to use their talents that you have already paid for once with all that experience again, they go back as a contractor on a long-term basis, they go back in for 90 days, home for 30, back in for 90, home for 30 but they live in with the same battalion, in the same valley, year after year after year, and you can pay a contractor to do that, just like you’d pay a rough-neck to go on an oil rig or a mining engineer to go work in some remote weird place in the world. They operate as a skeletal support structure. You provide leadership, intelligence, communications, weapons, and logistics expertise to that Afghan unit. You make sure the men are paid on time, fed on time, they have a communications plan that works so when they get in trouble they can call for fire support, they can call for medevac or they can call for close air. You have to have those five essentials in any military unit and if you don’t, it’s a critical chain and if one of those links is broken it all goes kaput. The second part is air support. The US Air Force didn’t start building the Afghan Air Force until 2007. You have a 90% illiterate population in Afghanistan so it’s tough to build people to be mechanics, to be pilots, let alone flying sophisticated aircraft. On top of that the pay is much better flying for a regional airline so most of those pilots leave, they have been chronically understaffed and they can’t even maintain Soviet air helicopters let alone more sophisticated equipment from the West. So you have Afghan units that are surrounded and which basically allows the enemy to go back to siege tactics, very ancient tactics, where they surround a base, 3 days, 4 days, 5 days, and in that time that base commander is screaming on the phone, on the radio, to anyone that will talk to him, asking for help, for medevac, for resupply, or for close air support. To the point where they are having to call media call-in shows, OK, pleading for help, but at the end of that 4 to 5-day period the Taliban end up destroying, slaughtering or capturing all those vehicles and all those personnel. So now if you look at the casualty statistics, Afghan units, they aren’t losing guys by 2s and 3s anymore, they’re losing them by the hundreds. And that makes war a catastrophic and systemic failure across these areas and that is why the enemy controls 70% of the terrain. So how do you fix that? I used to have 28 of my own aircraft in country doing that kind of support for the US. As big and mighty as the US military is, with a 700-billion-dollar budget, they still contracted out for air support because they didn’t have the right kind of aircraft. Doing parachute resupply, doing logistics work, very mundane, boring stuff, but if you don’t have it right military actions become very difficult. So we planned up 90-some aircraft that would include CAS[1], surveillance, medevac, logistics, gunship birds, everything. But, the premise being, I put an Afghan in one cockpit and a contractor pilot in the other. So it’s not a US military guy taking the shot, it’s not a contractor taking the shot, so using the stores management system like the weapon release switches in an aircraft remain in the sole control of an Afghan, under Afghan rule of engagement and under their authority. Reliably flown, safely flown, delivering close air support, we can go into ad nauseam how many things wrong, very expensive the US and NATO approaches have been but there have been 92 aircraft lost over Afghanistan and all of them to ground fire, no missiles. Zero, OK. The helicopters that have been lost have been shot down at very low altitude by an RPG or a heavy machine gun. This idea that you have to have 100-million-dollar fighter jets flying around requiring tanker support and all the rest at 25,000 feet is insane, OK. Put the close back in close air support. The third part is, I would call, governance and it is not governance of the government or villages but just of the Afghan forces. So right now the US taxpayers are spending 62 billion dollars in 2019, more than the entire UK defence budget, just in Afghanistan. We spend 5 billion dollars supporting the ANSF, the Afghan National Security Forces, and 57 billion to support the 15,000 US troops and 30,000 contractors that are already in the country, OK, it’s insane numbers. The Afghan forces get all their supply, the logistics support through those 7 core facilities and that is where most of the corruption is. Food, fuel, parts, ammunition. So you put long-term logistics controllers, accountants, guys with clipboards counting and making sure that when the battalions in the field order equipment that their stuff comes on time, on budget, and it’s not getting stolen. The other 57 billion that you’re spending to support the 30,000 plus contractors and the 15,000 active duty can start to scale down because as I said we do mentor teams; I’d put a 36-man mentor team into each Afghan battalion. When, in special forces parlance, whether you’re US Army Special Forces or 22 SAS, they say generally at 18 builds a battalion, at 18 you generally have 14 people and that builds a 6-800-man battalion. In this case I went with a much richer mix of mentors at 36 so we have a lot more expats, professionals that would go with them, effectively training wheels with those battalions. So you have a mentor team of significant capability that goes with the force, you have air power that shows up reliably, and you have a governance mechanism that makes sure their food, fuel, parts and supplies arrive on time and, since you have mentors in the field with each of the battalions you eliminate the ghost soldier problem, OK, which is very real. What is reported in the Afghan logs, roster for people and the reality is a very different number OK, and there are a lot of commanders that are skimming, there’s a lot of graft that goes on but if you have mentors, counting heads in the field, every Friday, and you have to show up, and again, none of this is theoretical, I have done this with the units my old company built, that we have done in the past, you print out a good ID card for that soldier that has his name, some biometric information and the serial number of the weapon he is responsible for and to get paid he has to present those, himself, his ID card, and his weapon. You start to cut down on the nonsense and this is basic soldiering. And then the other part of governance I would say is combat medicine. You are seven times more likely to die if you are an Afghan and you get wounded. It is very much a two-tiered medical system and men will fight harder if they know someone will take care of them. But when you hear stories of Afghan soldiers dying 5 days, 12 days, 2-3 weeks later of a wound that has gone sceptic because they can’t even get antibiotics, and they know nobody cares about them, why would they leave. So if you’re a poor Afghan soldier and you’re hunkered down at your base, and you haven’t been paid in a month, and you’re short on ammunition because the commander has been selling it or stealing it, and you know nobody is going to show up if you go out and get it on in a fight, and you know nobody is going to help you in a medevac, what incentive do you have to go do your job? So the plan I lay out addresses those fundamental issues and I draw again on the experience of having done this. We built, my company built the Afghan border police, we built the bases all over the country, we trained thousands and thousands of Afghans and we pleaded for months to let the DoD let us send mentors with them. Because when you take, if you take a British recruit, or an American recruit, and I can speak from the American side, you send a guy to Paris Island, the Marine Corp depot, and they go through a 16-week programme, even when they graduate they haven’t become fully a marine that you can send out as a complete unit, you send them out to another unit, you send them to a functioning unit with a gunnery sergeant and the other sergeants that give them that on-the-job training. If you don’t do that with the Afghans, people that are largely illiterate, and I remember having to modify the curriculum in the Afghan border police to include indoor toilet use, light switches, running water, because these guys were living in a hut in the middle of nowhere had never experienced before. So trying to drag them from a standing stop to a high-functioning soldier, tough to do that in 10 weeks. You have to have the mentoring programme to do that and that goes back, that is as old as warfare itself. The model, and without wading into the politics of the East India Company, but that is the model that they used for 250 years with expat troops attached to a local unit, largely on a 19-to-1 ratio, OK, that continuity works. Again I’m not wading into the politics of East India but in terms of forming a unit for conventional or unconventional operations, and you combine it with air power that shows up reliably. I might not have the perfect plan, but I would like for someone to debate me or lay it out, because nothing I am talking about is, it’s not hypothetical, we’re doing this now and this can be done again more effectively than the mess we have. I know accountability is an issue and the plan for this would be that any contractor whether they are a mentor, a pilot, could be held to account under the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, that is military law. So if a guy does an evil act while he is the country it can be investigated by a US military prosecutor, prosecuted in country if necessary, and incarceration if necessary, back in their home country, or in the United States. In dealing with the NATO issue I think on the ground side I plan to use 60% US and 40% folks from NATO countries to also include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, because there is a lot of talent who come as individuals and not as a unit from their home countries because of the myriad of restrictions, this unit can’t move at night, this unit can’t cross the road, this unit can’t do that kind of operation, no. You assign and you attach into the Afghan units and I want competitive tension between the units. I want a French mentor team competing with a German team and a Canadian team and an American team for who operates hardest against the enemy, who controls the most terrain, and who does the job the best. As wasteful as a Delta Force vs. Seal Team Six might be, they make each other sharper. Steel sharpens steel and that approach works in Afghanistan, we need to go back to tactical innovation and deviousness because the Taliban that have survived for 17 years, they are not commuting to war. We are, OK, we are commuting from thousands and thousands of miles away from a very alien culture, but the Taliban that have survived, they know how the US and NATO patrols and targets, how quickly their air power shows up, and they know exactly what they are going to do, so you have a very clever, honed enemy. Imagine if you were 15 in 2001. Now that guy is 32 years old and that is one hard, experienced soldier who knows exactly how the US and how the West operates. To flip that on its head, this is the kind of plan that has to be adopted. With that I’ll take questions, thank you.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Well, thank you for laying it out so clearly and succinctly. Let me actually start, I suppose the plan has been trailed for a year, the plan you’ve suggested and there have been a few modifications here and there…

Erik Prince: Let me just add, we were almost there last summer. The terrible race riot that happened in Charlottesville and the President took a political pounding for that and it made him reluctant to try and change big policy, he was reluctant to and basically the national security apparatus in America said you can pull out and Afghanistan will melt down like Iraq did or you can send more money and more troops. The President gave them more money and more troops and they promised results and there’s no results. There is lots of talk about peace deals and negotiations. You’re not going to have a Versailles moment, they’re not all going to line up and surrender or reconcile. The Taliban are winning, you can feel they are winning, and they know if they keep the pressure on at current state the West will eventually just pull out and they will win categorically. So again, I want to bring us to stable and sustainable level of spending and effort that keeps the Afghan forces more upright in ability and able to be an offense instead of hunker down at their bases because when the politics change in America it can be swift and sudden and catastrophic, when you look at the support for South Vietnam in the Vietnam war and then when that ended, a matter of a year and a half later you had helicopters off the roof of the US Embassy because the enemy had conquered. And as bad as the North Vietnamese military might have been, you have 22 resident terror organisations still in Afghanistan, you have a terrain that is very conducive to providing cover and more cells, the Taliban and ISIS make between 6-800 million dollars a year right now in illegal drug sales, they’re not growing necessarily but they definitely control the trafficking, and illegal mining. Sadly, there’s a trillion dollars of value under the ground in Afghanistan and the only guys that are mining it are the criminals, are the terrorists. The 9/11 attacks cost 500,000 dollars and the reason they killed 3000 is because they didn’t know how to kill 3 million. So I think keeping the lights on in Afghanistan is important and I want to do that in a far cheaper and far more effective way and people say ‘Erik Prince wants to privatise the war’, no, there’s 15,000 active duty US, 30,000 contractors, my approach takes it to 2,000 active duty, just soft forces and 6,000 contractors and that’s it.

Dr Alan Mendoza: And what does it cost, the plan?

Erik Prince: So I would keep the Afghan security forces budget the same, that’s about 5, another 2 billion to keep 2,000 soft guys there, I mean I imagine a million dollars per soldier for active duty, and the balance is about 3 and a half. So you’re at about 10, 10 and a half billion versus 62. Even in Washington hopefully people understand that’s a price reduction.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Well I’m going to bring this up because of course it has been around for a year, the plan, and it has of course attracted some criticism and you could put them down as 3 Cs essentially. The complexity, Erik Prince doesn’t understand the complexity of what he’s getting into in Afghanistan, it’s very tribal, you don’t understand the differences, you’ll get on the ground and your guys won’t have a clue. That’s number one. Obviously the control issue, you’ve mentioned about accountability/privatising the war, and I note you had this idea of competitive tensions between units, but some people would say it’s not that easy, he’s encouraging them to be as brutal as possible, perhaps that’s what they’ll say. And lastly of course the cost issue, he thinks he can do that for that little amount of money, he’s nuts. So those are the 3 Cs.

Erik Prince: So I’ll take the cost issue first. Easy, because I would say with 99% of assurance that people than run their mouths on cost have never costed it themselves and haven’t done it. It’s not theoretical. I have a spreadsheet that will account for every bean, bullet, litre of fuel, and whatever is necessary. This is not theoretical and academics can run their mouth, professional pundits can, and here’s the sad thing, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about is very real. And the unhealthy amount of money that gets appropriated by Congress to the Pentagon and washed through Congressional campaigns in a continuous loop is wrong. And as a taxpayer and a father I have a real problem with that. We now have kids that are dying that were 1-year-old when the towers fell, OK, and I am not ready to accept multi-generational war. You have some idiots in Washington saying ‘well you have to be in Afghanistan like we have been in South Korea’ – for 68 years. No. Hard-line no. Next was control. If you believe in an Afghanisation of the issue, then putting the tools in the hands of competent Afghan leaders is the only way you are going to do that. And if it takes 5 years or it takes 10 years with that kind of mentor programme it is still a fraction of what you are spending there now. I mean, again, putting it under Afghan rules of engagement, under Afghan leadership, if we believe in supporting a sovereign Afghanistan and whether it’s more power in a central government or more decentralised approach, I will leave that to the Afghans to figure out, that’s not for us to impose on them. But in terms of giving them the means to control their territory with units that are reliable so that when that poor village, you named the province in Afghanistan, calls and says ‘I’ve got 1000 Taliban attacking our town right now’, that the Afghan national command authority has the means to send people and aircraft and equipment to the problem right now, no excuses, no inshallah, they go right now. What was the third point?

Dr Alan Mendoza: Complexity

Erik Prince: Complexity. Again, everything we are talking about doing has been done in the past. Contractors build bases. Contractors train units. Contractors provide mentor support. Much of the ISR over the country is run by contractors.[2] We’ve had mentors that have gone, my company has had mentors that have gone, hundreds and hundreds of them that have gone in the field with indigenous units leading, training, patrolling with. They don’t have to be the first guy through the door in a combat raid, you immediately get the Afghans to do that. But the continuity that comes, trust me, if I put a 36-man mentor team with a battalion and those mentors know this is my job for the next 3 years, they are going to make triple-damn-sure that Afghan unit is supplied and well-led and disciplined and that the few bad eggs that might be in the fold are sent home, OK. That is how you get continuity. Afghans place a lot of trust on continuity and that long-term relationship but you can’t do that if you’re rotating people every 6-8 months.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Ok, right, I am going to kick over to questions. Could you give your name and your affiliation? Let’s go to the back first, well the middle, the lady there, yes.

Speaker 1: Gabrielle Rifkind, I direct the Oxford Process which is about trying to find the conditions for peace-making. The point you make about continuity is well-taken, but two questions for you. First of all, how would Ashraf Ghani[3] take this plan, have you been in conversation with Afghans about it, how did they see it, and also where does it fit with the ideas that Americans and governments are now talking about engaging with the Taliban, possibly engaging in government, regionally and in central government.

Erik Prince: So I made a couple of videos, one of which was translated into Dari, and pushed it into Afghan distribution and that had the desired effect. There have been a lot of Afghans that have embraced it, in fact, their parliament has just sent a letter, I’m told, to the US authorities in Kabul encouraging them to look hard at this as a different approach. Look, it’s the Afghans, as many casualties as we in the West have taken, they’re taking 10 times as many. And it’s their town that is getting blown up by car-bombs on a weekly basis, they have to live with it. And I think they are looking for a different solution. So look, the amount of, there is no question the amount of money that is spent by the US definitely benefits some Afghans, some of them are Afghan politicians, and not all of them will welcome to see that faucet shut down, or at least somewhat curtailed. So I wouldn’t expect all Afghan politicians to support this, but they don’t have to.

Speaker 1: But the President, how would he perceive it?

Erik Prince: I don’t know how much support the President has anymore. There’s been a, frankly, without wading into Afghan politics, there has been probably too much emphasis in the West on making one central government versus Afghanistan which has always been kind of a tribal confederation and so America works because we don’t just have a central government, we have state governments and local governments, and the best government is that which governs least and governs as close to home. And so respecting the role of local governments or provincial governors in those, I think is something we should do more of.

Dr Alan Mendoza: I’m going to take them in threes if I may, can I just take the gentleman here, then two, and then three, we just need your name and organisation.

Speaker 2: I am an MA Security Studies student and former special forces in Afghanistan so (inaudible). One thing I want to know is, do you have evidence that this kind of actions in Afghanistan is, I want to know the name because any kind of unit is named, like companies that are working as mentors with Afghan forces, if you have done that before in Afghanistan.

Erik Prince: Blackwater was.

Speaker 2: Blackwater, OK. One thing about Blackwater in Afghanistan, kind of one thing was that they would be the most brutal forces, they are not on the side of the people in Afghanistan and they will destroy all that, versus the army forces that will somehow are supposed to respect all that that comes from the chief of command and whoever is supporting them, this is the concern about privatising the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and having the mentors. But one thing I can see because the unit that I was working with which was supported by US forces as a mentor and we were very successful in all of our operations and another thing, will these mentors just be as advisors to the Afghan forces or they will be just going to the action and operating by themselves or alongside or just mentoring the Afghan forces as well?

Dr Alan Mendoza: We’ll just take a couple of questions at the same time, you might want to write them down, yes next to you.

Speaker 3: Thank you very much indeed, Euan Grant from the Institute of Statecraft, I was working 10 years ago with a lot of Ukrainian colleagues who were veterans of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan and I must say I was struck by what they were saying in the early 2000s is exactly word for word what we were hearing from the media and from the military and so it begs the question who listened to whom and so on. My question is if, noting the gentleman’s very serious comments about the cultural challenge and indeed the regional, federal, tribal structure of Afghanistan, if Western contractors don’t get involved, how concerned would you be about non-Western contractors moving in? I was a little surprised at how surprised people were this February about Wagner[4] in Syria, because frankly I’ve been covering Wagnerism since February, but February of 1998. So is there a real chance the Russians and the Chinese could move in as contractors?

Dr Alan Mendoza: Ok, and lastly?

Speaker 3: You mentioned…

Dr Alan Mendoza: Your name?

Speaker 4: Gary Ling, I’m a nobody, just interested. You mentioned the incentives that the troops need with your mentors when they’re in situ, what is actually the motivation for an ordinary Afghan person who lives in a hut to join the army to fight the Taliban? I’ve never quite understood that, it seems that they’re in danger from the moment they go into a recruitment station, they can get their hands blown off, and then they, I’m not quite sure, what are they fighting for, in your experience?

Erik Prince: I’ll answer that one first. Look, Afghans are patriotic folks and they don’t want, I think they want to have a bit more of a pluralist society and not have certain restrictions imposed on them by the Taliban from when they governed the country. When nobody is going to help them with medevac and all the other soldiering basics and there’s a high likelihood of them being slaughtered, it definitely overwhelms that patriotic desire or the need to make money. Because that’s the other thing, people join the military as a steady pay cheque in a largely underdeveloped economy. Jumping to the question about contractors, look, I think the Russians pay more attention to Afghanistan, one to payback America for the losses sustained there in the 80s, but two, if the US pulls out and it becomes a complete festering mess, then you can drive from Afghanistan into Russia, right, you can drive north and the amount of Islamic radicalism that can fester there is daunting so I’d imagine the Russians take note. The Iranians are much more active on the western border now, adding a lot more weapons, and again as a rejection of the sanctions policy and the nuclear deal, and the Paks continue to provide money and weapons and assistance to the Haqqanis and to the Taliban writ large, and that’s the other thing, for as much noise as the US makes about getting tough on the Paks, the fact is we can’t, because the very thirsty log lines that run from Karachi north are in the hands of the Paks. So we can try to choke them but they got us by something else and while you have those log lines you can’t ever get tough on the Paks. A small footprint like I recommend, you can run that in from the North, the trucks. Then there are a lot of dumb things, there are a number of refineries in Afghanistan, OK, for the last two decades, but nobody has bothered to put in a refinery that actually makes NATO-compliant fuel, so you have to truck in everything. It’s part of the absence of price information that the Pentagon seems to ignore, when you throw a lot of money at a problem it never makes anyone take a step back and say how do we do this smarter, cheaper and smaller. And then as for the mentor side, look there is a fundamental difference between being there on a security job where the only mission is stop American diplomats getting killed, versus with an Afghan unit and going in the field with them. How I envision these mentor teams working they would always be by, with, and through, which is really the same mentality as the special operations forces doing that mentoring role. The expat mentor teams would not be there to do unilateral operations, they would always be there with Afghans in the lead, but with the mentor teams being effectively training wheels to make sure the bicycle doesn’t tip over.

Speaker 2: Will the actual forces be Afghan forces?

Erik Prince: Yes, absolutely.

Speaker 2: What about the pay and everything, is it going to come out of the Afghan government or…

Erik Prince: Honestly, my preference would be, it still comes through an Afghan dispersement centre, I’ve talked about the third part of my plan of mentors, air power, governance, is to put some competent people there to make sure the pay actually goes to the men it’s supposed to go to and not to all the ghost soldiers and not to the corrupt officials who are stealing the supply. I mean I see stories of corrupt dispersement officials requiring sex acts by Afghan war widows for them to collect their benefits, OK, that guy needs to be hung high, no question, there is no amount of punishment too much for that.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Ok, the lady here?

Speaker 5: (Inaudible) with the Institute for Strategic Studies, I was just wondering because we were talking about complexity and also control, and also regarding other contractors that might move in, be they US or other nationalities, does your plan include a mechanism that would co-ordinate those different contractors? Because it might facilitate more difficulties if…

Erik Prince: What else would those contractors be doing? Because look, here’s the thing, 30,000 contractors are running round the country right now and doing base support stuff, which makes a much more difficult co-ordination mission than if you have 6,000, OK, basically it’s a rationalisation, you’re going to do three things, you’re going to mentor with each Afghan unit, with co-ordination through a central talk in a couple of key cities and a tactical operations centre, and I would even put cameras on all the mentors, OK, to prevent the same rules of engagement questions and justifiable shooting or not, but body cameras on them all and let the camera be that third-party witness. The amount of, I mean the aircraft would be tracked, you can track those through a real-time satellite beacon. The governance stuff, look the special inspector-general for Afghanistan I think should take a greater role in Afghanistan. Sadly, when the Pentagon starts making reports classified as to how many casualties, what the spending is and where the waste is, you know they’re hiding, you know there’s bad things that should be reported. So to me rationalisation makes co-ordination much simpler and much cheaper and much more reliable.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Ok, we’ll take three here.

Speaker 6: David, a former soldier, I spent a lot of time in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Could you just say a little bit more about Pakistan and how you think they might view this plan? It would be great…

Erik Prince: They would not like it. And you know I think the best vote came last year when the Taliban spokesman came out against this plan, vociferously.

Speaker 6: And if they are pushing towards peace, how would the plan integrate with an eventual peace process with the Taliban? Or do you think there is not any chance of a peace process until the Taliban are gone?

Erik Prince: I think the Taliban would be very willing to accept our surrender. That is what their peace process looks like.

Speaker 7: Hello my name is Fawad Kamal, I am a financial analyst but in my spare time I have done an extensive study of the East India Company, the original sources of rich India. With the East India Company Britain turned India, which was a non-stop killing field for 2000 years into an area of unprecedented security. For example, when the English and the East India Company annexed Punjab in 1849 due to the internal disturbances and its inability to maintain its treaty, and then when the Indian mutiny started, they expected Punjab to erupt, which actually contained the areas that are now Pakistan. So they expected it to completely erupt but instead they were themselves astounded when the Sikhs that they had defeated, the Afghans they had defeated, and others they had defeated in Punjab actually entered into the East India forces in gigantic and massive numbers which enabled the British to retain control of India. Immediately after that happened the British, in the way so many had come, maintained relations with the local men of influence, shall we say, who then brought all of their…

Erik Prince: Resources.

Speaker 7: All of their resources into the East India colours. Now after the East India Company those men of influence, shall we say, were awarded land and title, I mean the British built irrigation which turned all of the jungles of Punjab into a gigantic, I think tens of millions of acres of new land, basically because of the irrigation, and those men of influence, each soldier got a piece of land so when you look at the Google Maps of the farmland in Punjab its very divided and getting smaller. From that point until 1947 not a single bullet was fired in anger at the British and their loyalty to the British army, I mean, was retained until they said goodbye to them in August 1947 and they pulled down the flag…

Dr Alan Mendoza: Ok, could we get to a question?

Erik Prince: I agree, the model of building local capacity and setting up and securing an area means that you can turn on, sadly I think the Soviet Union did a better job of building or mapping the resources of Afghanistan than the US has done, OK, sadly. They drilled gas wells, they drilled oil wells, they properly cemented them on their way out, and we still haven’t really gone back in and turned those on. So, setting and securing an area is the first requirement for natural resource investment. If its secure and you have a US military that won’t go off the base unless there is 20 steps to their process and it might take hours or days, and if you have an Afghan military that can’t really do it, then nobody is going to invest a dollar in that area, and so the only guys that are making money on the resource stuff are the enemy. So, again, that model works and I agree vociferously, please give me your card afterwards.

Speaker 8: Thank you, my name is John Dobson from the Sunday Guardian, which is an Indian newspaper. Your plan is very seductive and if I were the President I would buy it. But what is the end-game you are promising, are you promising the defeat of the Taliban, are you promising the status quo, are you promising hearts and minds, are you promising a peace treaty, what is your end-game, what am I going to get for the money I am going to give you?

Erik Prince: I would promise a much more effective Afghan security force that controls its terrain, that controls the terrain inside of its borders, that sets security in enough areas that you start to get pockets of development. When you had generals that are there on a rotational basis and with a very limited mandate, not really to do economic development but you try to control certain terrain, they miss the entire economics piece of it all, not how much it costs for them to be there, but the economy that is not turned on underneath it. And so, as the previous questioner said, setting security in an area, establishing some property rights, remember in the USAID, in the 1950s, put in massive irrigation there and there was a lot of effective farming. When you look at a graduating picture of like 1975 Kabul university, the women had big 70s hairdos and short sleeves and skirts. So it wasn’t that long ago that they were a much more progressed, more free society. 40-some years of war has cost them in a circular loop of chaos, so I don’t think it takes that long, 4-5 years to break that cycle, and that’s certainly…

Speaker 8: I understand that, but what?

Erik Prince: An Afghanistan that governs itself, that can fund itself, because all we’ve created in the last 17 years is 100% welfare case.

Speaker 8: And the Taliban? Where are they at the end of your, in the end-game?

Erik Prince: Here’s the thing, when you, since no-one has turned on any legitimate mining, the Taliban pays you around 10 dollars per day. I’m paying 12 dollars a day to come work a mine. You have to take that out because a lot of them are doing that for pay just like they’re taking the Afghan government for pay. So, look, can I give you a three years and it will be done? No, but I give you a way cheaper option that keeps the Afghan forces upright in much more effective and let the economy suck the bad labour out of the labour force.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Gentleman in the yellow tie there, then the lady there and the gentleman in the blue shirt, yes.

Speaker 9: Andrew Farquhar and I come from the Security in Complex Environments Group, which is a UK based group. I’d be really interested to know how you’re going to get reputationally and the perception across that you’re not going to be the sort of old-fashioned Blackwater and the uncontrolled, in some respects, I just touch on that, the independent code of conduct association for example, the UN group on mercenaries, they are very concerned about the rules and the role and vetting, so my question is how are you going to make sure that all your contractors are held to the highest standards, particularly if they are multi-national, and have a consistency of behaviour and respect for human rights?

Erik Prince: Sure. Look, the Blackwater name got so tarnished and so blown out by one event in Iraq, OK. And just to get perspective on that, the guys did more than 100,000 PSD[5] missions between Iraq and Afghanistan and no-one was ever killed under their care and they engaged their weapons in less than one half of one percent of the time, while 41 of our men were killed doing that job. So in the Vietnam war the anti-war left went after the troops, in Iraq the anti-war left went after the contractors. And so because of that I would stand behind the special forces, US military veterans that were doing that job there, just like I would stand behind them now. The vetting standards would be maintained; I mean the performance of those contractors like this would be a criminal background check, a psychological evaluation, once they’ve even been screened for their resonator experience, their time in combat, their interview, their unit commander, their top sergeant, whatever. But again this is something best decided by the Afghans and not by NGOs in Switzerland or in the national capitals. This is an Afghan problem for them to solve. I think the more its bureaucratised the less effective that kind of work can be on the ground. But I agree, high vetting standards for experienced folk out of Western militaries, that are trained again to a common set of tactics with agreed to procedures, with agreed to and dictated rules of engagement by their Afghan counterparts.

Speaker 10: Sarah Ingham, I was researcher for General Richard Dannatt on his recent history of the British Army. I was wondering what feedback you’ve had on your plan from either the US military or its NATO counterparts?

Erik Prince: I would say special forces officers of all stripes, whether they’re sergeants to generals, love the idea. Conventional generals hate it. OK, there’s a fundamental difference. In a special operations unit, the man is the weapons system, you equip the man. In a conventional military its artillery, its rockets that does the killing and you man the equipment. It is a fundamental different paradigm in how you look at warfare. And this is an unconventional war, OK. In two-and-a-half weeks, there will be the association of the US army convention in Washington, OK, 8-10 October. And there will be a smorgasbord of multi-billion-dollar weapon systems, every kind of high-dollar radar, and radio, and airplane, and helicopter, and all the rest. It is all largely proving over 17 years to be useless fighting against guys in flip-flops and pick-up trucks, OK. So I don’t care how good all your equipment is and how wonderful your conventional combat power is, you’re still getting beat by largely illiterate farmers. So change your paradigm and change what you’re doing because this matters because this empowers every jihadi in the world if they say ‘ah, we beat the great Satan in Afghanistan, Afghanistan the graveyard of empires’, and that empowers every one of those shitheads everywhere in the world, and we’ve got to fight and not be defeated, we can innovate. And if somebody has got a better plan, lay it on me, I’m listening.

Speaker 11: Two questions, I am an Afghan journalist. My first question is regarding the political reflection of, for example you were talking about (inaudible) and the US government. One of the key things is that the counter-insurgency is the most political form of warfare in the world and the Taliban has (inaudible), religion, poverty, whenever there is a political pressure with the Taliban it will be integrated as an ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, how do you respond or progress this political part of your plan? And my second question is…

Erik Prince: You mean that effectively fighting against the Taliban could be seen as ethnic cleansing against the Pashtuns?

Speaker 11: Because I am, as a person who lived in Afghanistan all my life, I am living and teaching in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that the American forces has been as tough in Afghanistan…

Erik Prince: Your last line again?

Speaker 11: The Americans have never been as tough to be respected, if you compare to the excessive use of violence by the Taliban against the people so it is the matter of ethnic issue in Afghanistan too because the reason is that the Taliban is prominently Pashtun…

Erik Prince: Right

Speaker 11: … group in Afghanistan, so the more the military pressurises on them the more it is a political reflection that is going to be integrated as the ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan considering the fact that the anti-Taliban constituency is the non-Pashtun in Afghanistan. My second question is as we go on I can see some of your points but the thing which is missing between here and Kabul is the lack of communication, so the problem is not in Afghanistan in understanding your plan for Afghanistan but the problem is…

Erik Prince: Did you see the video I made in Dari?

Speaker 11: Unfortunately, I think it has been reported, I don’t know how…

Erik Prince: It’s on YouTube, I’ll send you the link. Look, again, I think whether they’re Tajik, Uzbek, Kalili, or Pashtun, I think most Afghans would rather work and farm and live their life rather than having another 40 years of war. And that people can return to work and a peaceful life, they’ll do it. The fact is that Afghans have always been a bit of a combative people and politics, like fighting, is local there and so you’re going to have problems in certain valleys. Right now I think there’s plenty of places in Afghanistan to try this approach because the government barely controls 30% of the terrain as it is. So this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing, let the conventional military continue what they’re doing, try this out in a few pockets, and see whose oil spot grows better.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Gentleman here.

Speaker 12: I’m John (inaudible), I’m an American politics student. I have a couple of questions about the kind of domestic reception this has had in the United States. So last year there were rumours that you yourself would be considering running for the Senate and do you think if you had done then that might have been something that might have given a bigger platform to your ideas, purely because I imagine the GOP in general, because of reasons you’ve talked about, the military-industrial complex, aren’t going to be too fond of cutting off the fund there. Also you talked about General McMaster stymieing your plan last year, as far as you know what’s the reaction been to like Mike Pompeo about your plan?

Erik Prince: As much scoffing as I got last year when I predicted another year of the same results, there’s not as many people scoffing this year. And if they keep doing the same thing it’s like, I’m not going away on this and so in time the Taliban is not going away either. So we’ll see. I have more than enough things to keep me busy with my day job but I wrote that op-ed because I have two sons who will likely follow in my footsteps and join the service in a couple of years and the idea of them going to Afghanistan to get blown up or dead, no way. No way. I mean the guy who was just killed last year, last week, was 13 tours, six bronze stars, and he was shot in the back. An Afghan insider attack. It’s a hell of a way to go.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Last question over there at the back.

Speaker 13: Chris (inadible), how are you going to, in your current plan, ensure that those surrounding, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, support what you’re doing and don’t actively oppose what you’re doing during your policy? And then how do you make sure that they will take over to bring everlasting peace?

Erik Prince: I will break those down. One, look I’d say that China is very worried about stability in Afghanistan because of the Uyghurs, the Uyghurs are ethnic Turks who live in the Xinjiang province of China and there’s Uyghur units in Syria, there’s Uyghur units in Afghanistan, and they are very worried about that capability coming back to China and making trouble…

Speaker 13: They are not interested in taking an American or European solution, they want a Chinese solution.

Erik Prince: I would say China doesn’t even know what a Chinese solution looks like because they would not know how to wade in to that fight against the Taliban.

Speaker 13: Can we just, how do you make sure that they want to co-operate with you, not that they have a similar objective?

Dr Alan Mendoza: Or doesn’t it matter?

Erik Prince: Here’s the thing, I would say the Russians, if they are making kind of with the Taliban it is because they are worried about the US pulling out and Afghanistan really falling apart because of the amount of terror export that can occur from there literally driving north into the former Soviet republics. Iran, they’re not co-operating because they’re angry about the sanctions on the nuclear deal, and so they’re actively subverting as are the Paks. So again, if you lighten the logistics requirement so that you can really go to town with covert action on the Paks, with who they’re sheltering in Quetta and the tribal areas and really get after the Haqqani network and give them the root canal it deserves, you go a long way to changing that. I mean I would go so far as to describe squeezing the senior Pakistani elites, with the amount of money they have parked in the United States, there’s a lot of means of pressure that can be brought to change their mind, because they are completely stabbing us in the back or have been the last 17 years.

Speaker 13: How are you going to make sure the legacy works? If you succeed.

Erik Prince: Excuse me?

Speaker 13: If you succeed, how will the legacy work?

Erik Prince: I would say in making a model of Afghan security forces that can defend their territory, I’m not talking about whether you build a central super-strong Kabul government, or regional governments, but if there is enough farming and resources being developed that you have people employed, you have the makings of a successful country, far more than you have in the area now. And a heck of a lot less costly.

Dr Alan Mendoza: Right that’s all we have time for. Erik I want to thank you for the very frank way in which you’ve addressed the issue, the very open way…

Erik Prince: That’s the only way to be.

Dr Alan Mendoza: It’s fantastic to have a discussion of this nature with someone who has proposed an idea and actually wants to talk about it rather than running away from the idea, as we often get. Obviously it’s not necessarily rooms like this where this will be resolved, probably rooms in Washington, but I think it is useful to have a sense of contemporary thought on a war which of course still affects us as well given the NATO mission element and what may happen there. And I don’t know if your plan is the answer, what I can say is that, it was reputed to be said of Einstein that if you repeat the same thing over and over again expecting different results that is a sign of madness, insanity, so from that perspective…

Erik Prince: Ask your politicians, ask your generals, what are they doing now differently than what they did in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2014. Come on.

Dr Alan Mendoza: There is no question in that regard. Erik, thank you.

[1] Close Air Support

[2] Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

[3] President of Afghanistan

[4] A Russian paramilitary organisation that have operated as a private military company, including on behalf of the Syrian government in the present conflict.

[5] Protective Service Detail


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