STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The car bombing in Kabul this morning drives home the reality of a long-running war. The United States had been slowly drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is asking for additional troops. White House officials have also at least discussed another option - using more private military contractors. There are already thousands of them there.
Erik Prince put forth one version of this idea. He is a former Navy SEAL and the founder of what was once the private security firm Blackwater that operated in Iraq. And he's on the phone. Mr. Prince, welcome to the program.
ERIK PRINCE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: You had a pretty provocative way of describing your idea in The Wall Street Journal. You called for a viceroy - an American viceroy in Afghanistan overseeing, among other things, a private army, like the British once had in India. Why is that a good idea?
PRINCE: Well, let me change the characterization. There's really three ways we can go in Afghanistan. We can pull out completely, in which case, the Afghan government would likely collapse in a matter of weeks and the terrorists would run the country. And for as hard as, you know, we may be pushing in Iraq or Syria and elsewhere to destroy the Islamic State...
INSKEEP: That would be bad, OK.
PRINCE: ...This would give them a victory. Or we can keep doing the same thing we've been doing the last 16 years. We're a trillion dollars into this spending. We're spending more than the entire German defense budget in Afghanistan. It's actually more than the entire U.S. infrastructure budget in Afghanistan alone. I don't think anyone has the appetite or - I don't think many people have the right to do that.
So what I've recommended, in that op-ed and other, you know, detailed suggestions, is a middle path. We need unity of command. Yes, you can call it a viceroy. You could really call it a bankruptcy trustee - one person that is in charge of the U.S. effort. We've had 17 different commanders in 15 years. There's been no continuity at all. It allows the Afghanis - and the Pakistanis for that matter - to play one side of the U.S. government against the other.
INSKEEP: But what about the part about private military contractors? Why would they - if they're taking a larger role in training or even fighting combat missions, why would they do any better than U.S. troops have done?
PRINCE: Well, there's already about 25,000 contracted personnel in-country. And those range from cooks and logistics support people to base support contractors and even trainers. So most of those would go away under this plan as well - probably a 75 percent reduction. The point of this effort is to get U.S. conventional forces a path to go home. The way that they would be used differently - when U.S. forces rotate there, they go for six months or nine months.
INSKEEP: You want to hire people to go there for a long time?
PRINCE: Correct, that will embed and live with those Afghan forces. You have to provide them with the key enablers - leadership, intelligence, communications, medical and logistics support - so that those units - at the battalion level, really where the rubber meets the road in Afghanistan - have the kind of professional support they need at each unit.
INSKEEP: Does your own company's experience in Iraq - whereas you know very well, contractors in one famous incident shot Iraqi civilians, caused a lot of outrage. Four of them were convicted. Does that argue against the idea of a larger role for private military contractors?
PRINCE: Well, they have a significant role there already and...
INSKEEP: But you're talking about more of a front-line role here.
PRINCE: It's a front-line role in the sense of - that there are going to be patrolling with those units. However, there is a huge pool of professional veterans that can do that mission, that can provide that, off-road to that long-term continuity.
If the U.S. Army were able to send 4,000 sergeants and above - and I'm saying just sergeants, warrant officers, senior-enlisted people and staff officers - to do that mission, they should do that. But they can't because the U.S. Army has grown small enough they can't maintain that kind of manning and rotations to do that. They've been trying to do that for the last 16 years. So this is really the only kind of option to get the kind of senior people into those units to help them - keep them upright. The one...
INSKEEP: It's been reported, Mr. Prince, that the U.S. military is very skeptical of this idea. But we've also had someone from The American Conservative on the program the other day who said that you had been involved in meetings with people who were advising the president and that they're thinking about it. How would you describe the president's interest, or the White House's interest, in your notion?
PRINCE: Well, let me go back and answer one of the things. The one part of the Afghan forces that is really effective is the Afghan special forces because they have been trained and mentored in this way by U.S. Special Forces counterparts. The part - the rest of the Afghan army, however, does not behave - perform anywhere near this level.
PRINCE: So the model is already in place. Look, I - when I wrote that op-ed, I'm told that the president read it, and it at least struck some curiosity. And I think it stimulated some debate at least for how do we do - how do we go forward in Afghanistan because the same 45 billion - I think they asked for 50-plus billion dollars next year. I don't think the White House has a huge appetite to spend that kind of money when American infrastructure could use that money much more effectively.
INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about Afghanistan and thinking about the reality that, as you know very well, war is also politics. And especially in an insurgency, the civilian populace and the support of the civilian populace is extremely important. And you've laid out this idea. And you're right. You could describe it different ways. But you called it at once a viceroy and a private army, like in colonial India. No matter what you end up calling it, how do you think an idea like that would go over with the Afghan people?
PRINCE: Well, it's the farthest thing from a private army. It's effectively an applied skeletal structure for the Afghan army. Remember, this is under Afghan chain of command, Afghan rules of engagement. The - what the Afghans want is to know that the United States is not going to abandon them because they desperately do not want to go under a Taliban or an ISIS rule. They've done that in the 1990s. They've seen how that looks, and they are desperate to not do that. I think...
INSKEEP: Last thing - just while I have a few seconds, I want you to have a chance to answer this because some people will raise the question. Does your company, Frontier Services Group, which provides logistics and other services in difficult places, want any part of this business?
PRINCE: Frontier Service Group, well, they - we do fuel support. We do base support. We do, you know, unarmed kind of work, so...
INSKEEP: But are - do you want some of this business, or is this a completely selfless suggestion you're making?
PRINCE: I, as a taxpayer, want to not spend $50 billion. And as a father, I don't want my sons going abroad into what's been a poorly conducted war so far. And if FSG or any other company I'm involved in had a chance to bid on it, absolutely.
INSKEEP: Erik Prince, thanks very much. Pleasure talking with you.
PRINCE: You bet.
INSKEEP: Erik Prince, once head of Blackwater, now head of Frontier Services Group.
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