Let's Get the Old Blackwater Team Back Together.
BY JUSTINE DRENNAN OCTOBER 10, 2014
Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company notorious for its huge government contracts and violent and often reckless conduct in Iraq, wrote this week that, "If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call," the U.S. government should "let the private sector finish the job."
"If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade-size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team," Prince wrote on the website of his new company (which is teaming up with China to tap into Africa's natural resources).
There are plenty of reasons why this could be a bad idea. Boots on the ground would increase the risk of Americans getting killed, captured, and potentially beheaded, regardless of whether those boots belonged to mercenaries or members of the regular military. The move would be hugely expensive for the U.S. government and give it less oversight than it would have over its own forces. And it would hand the Islamic State a propaganda bonanza.
Prince doesn't address those risks. Instead, he says that his time at Blackwater -- now known as Academi -- offers proof that "the private sector has long provided nations around the world with innovative solutions to national defense problems."
But Prince's post-Blackwater career shows how hard it is to put those "innovative solutions" into practice. In 2011, Prince, who is also a billionaire and a former Navy SEAL and CIA operative, was involved in an attempt to organize South African mercenaries to train a "Puntland Maritime Police Force" to fight Somali pirates. Eventually, after the program came under fire for various human rights abuse claims, its sponsors gave up, meaning that, in the New York Times' words, "the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia's clan wars."
Around the same time, Prince was also helping to train Colombian mercenaries in the United Arab Emirates, where he fled from Blackwater-related legal challenges, to defend the country's infrastructure from terrorism attacks and, critics feared, to stifle opponents of the government. Those mercenaries are now serving at the will of the authoritarian UAE.
Other Africa-related Prince projects include not just security and logistics as chairman of Frontier Services Group (which published his latest post), but also a move into video games with a first-person shooter game set in North Africa, which came out in 2011 and was titled, unabashedly, "Blackwater."
Prince had good reasons for getting out of the mercenary business in Iraq. Blackwater's time there -- for which it ultimately received more than $1 billion in government contracts -- was marred by the unprovoked shooting of 17 civilians in a Baghdad square in 2007 and, just weeks before, death threats against a State Department investigator looking into the company's conduct. Once safely back in Washington, the investigator blasted Blackwater for creating "an environment full of liability and negligence," in a report that the State Department suppressed or neglected.
Just last month, a jury began deliberations in a case against the four former Blackwater employees accused of the Baghdad shootings, which had increased pressure for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2011. A court dismissed a previous case on the shootings in 2009; a verdict in the present case is expected soon.
But Prince doesn't mention any of this in his recent post. Rather, he suggests that mercenaries are just the thing for a United States that is "clearly war-fatigued" over Iraq because "defeat was already snatched from the jaws of victory by the rapid pullout of US forces in 2009." He doesn't note that in the same year, Blackwater changed its name to Xe in an unsuccessful attempt to shake its aura of scandal, and that he himself resigned as CEO. The next year he sold the company, which now goes under yet another name.
Nearly three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that his company may have hastened, Prince is apparently nostalgic for the days when mercenaries had free rein over Mesopotamia. Last month he told a Washington audience that it was too bad "the [Obama] administration crushed my old business, because as a private organization, we could've solved the boots-on-the-ground issue."
Prince isn't entirely alone in his belief that American guns for hire could defeat the Islamic State on the battlefield. "What's killing the West now in this fight on terror, and Putin as well, is the politics of it. Can't get anything done quickly, can't mobilize fast," Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said in September, while also calling for a mercenary army. "So, it's going to happen. This anti-terror army is going to happen."
Slightly more eloquently, Prince argues in his recent blog post that "a competent professional force of volunteers would serve as the pointy end of the spear and would serve to strengthen friendly but skittish indigenous forces."
Americans -- and Iraqis -- can only hope the U.S. government won't let the pointy end of a spear belonging to Prince, or anyone like him, anywhere near Iraq again.