President Donald Trump’s pre-election pledge to end America’s useless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan just might turn out to be somewhat less than what was promised if some political allies of the president have their way. For the past year there have been rumors circulating in Washington about the possibility of using mercenaries rather than American soldiers to keep the lid on a volatile Afghanistan and to arrange for regime change in countries like Venezuela.
It perhaps should surprise no one that a country dedicated to “free markets” should at least somewhat embrace the idea of using mercenaries to fight its wars. The concept is already embedded in the federal government, increasingly so since 9/11. A majority of the workers in the intelligence community as well as in the civilian ranks of the Pentagon are already paid contractors who work for the “Beltway bandit” firms that specialize in national security. A substantial number of those hires are armed paramilitaries operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Mideast and Africa.
The logic for going with contractors rather than employees has been that budgets go up and down, so it is the smart thing to have a lot of people working for you who are on one-year contracts and can be let go if the money to pay them is not authorized. The downside is that the average federal employee costs roughly $125,000 per year in pay and benefits. A contractor costs three times as much, which means that the taxpayer pays the piper for something that is a convenience for the government.
The most prominent advocate for mercenary armies is Erik Prince, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater. Blackwater was a major private military contractor in Iraq, where it provided security for State Department operations and facilities. Notoriously, in 2007, Blackwater employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad. One of Prince’s employees was eventually convicted of murder and three others have been convicted of manslaughter. Prince subsequently renamed the Blackwater security company and then sold it in 2010.
Prince, the scion of a wealthy Midwestern family that made its money selling auto parts, is himself a former Navy SEAL.