By Mujib Mashal
A new crop of senior American officials in Afghanistan has been racing to contain a dual crisis on the battlefield and in a potentially explosive election dispute. But it is a different American figure — the mercenary executive Erik D. Prince — who has been the talk of Kabul these days.
More than a year after first laying out his plan to President Trump to privatize the American war in Afghanistan with a cadre of contractors — and a private air force — Mr. Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm that became infamous for killing civilians in Iraq, has seemingly been everywhere.
And as he has made his sales pitch directly to a host of influential Afghans, he has frequently been introduced as an adviser to Mr. Trump himself.
Mr. Prince is pushing his plan at a particularly vulnerable time for the country. Afghan security forces are dying at a record number of 30 to 40 a day largely in a defensive posture against a Taliban that has gained territory. The government is beset by repeated political crises as parliamentary elections, delayed for three years, are scheduled for this month. Presidential elections are set for April.
Interviews with a half-dozen political figures who have met Mr. Prince in recent months — as well as an interview with Mr. Prince by The New York Times during his trip to Kabul in September — reveal an executive determined to sell a vision of how his contractors could offer an official military withdrawal from Afghanistan to a war-weary American public and president.
Now, those officials say, he has increasingly found a receptive audience among Afghanistan’s power brokers, meeting everyone from lowly militia commanders, to former cabinet officials and entrenched regional strongmen, to several potential presidential candidates.
What most of those Afghans have in common is a desire to see President Ashraf Ghani gone. And Mr. Prince’s lobbying circuit, including multiple visits to Kabul, Washington and the United Arab Emirates, has made him increasingly unwelcome with Mr. Ghani, who has rejected repeated requests to meet with Mr. Prince.
Some in the government even tried to block Mr. Prince’s visa, according to Afghan officials and those close to Mr. Prince.
Several officials close to Mr. Ghani say they see Mr. Prince’s plan not only as unviable amid a complex conflict and peace effort with the Taliban, but also as a politicized threat to the Afghan president himself before next year’s presidential election.
And they say Mr. Ghani’s adamant opposition to a privatized security presence has made him an obstacle to Mr. Prince’s ambitions.
In a speech on Monday, an angry Mr. Ghani aimed a barely veiled criticism at Mr. Prince and his plan.
“Foreign mercenaries will never be allowed in this country,” he said.
A statement by Mr. Ghani’s national security adviser on Thursday said the Afghan government would not allow fighting terrorism to become a “for-profit business.”
“We will consider all legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land,” the statement said.
Mr. Prince is positioning his pitch as a cheaper middle option between continuing a largely failed military strategy at an expensive annual tab of tens of billions of dollars, and a complete security withdrawal that some fear would abandon 17 years of costly Western efforts to remake Afghanistan.
He contends that his proposal can achieve what more than 140,000 American and NATO troops at the heart of the troop surge in 2009 and 2010 could not. He compares the current mission, which is reduced to about 15,000 American troops supported on their bases by more than 20,000 private contractors, to the failures of the Soviet Union. (An American service member was killed on Thursday in Afghanistan, the United States military command here said without providing any details. It was the eighth death of an American soldier in the country this year.)
In the interview, Mr. Prince laid out what he called a “rationalization” of private contracting already happening: a leaner mission of 6,000 private contractors providing “skeletal structure support” and training for Afghan forces. Small teams of Special Forces veterans embedded with Afghan battalions for about three years, he said, would ensure the continuity lacking now with American soldiers rotating out every year.
They would be supported by air through a fleet of contracted aircraft flown by joint teams of Afghans and contractors. About 2,500 American Special Operations forces would remain in the country for counterterrorism missions. All of this, Mr. Prince said, would bring down the annual cost of the war to roughly a fifth of the current amount.
He denied he was trying to influence the Afghan political process to achieve that vision. He said the only money he had spent on Afghanistan was the $1,500 production cost of a 10-minute video to explain his plan.
“The Afghan people will have an election, and they will make the choices that they are going to live with,” Mr. Prince said. “But I will talk to whichever party in Afghanistan that wants to think about a different way to this that actually stops the bleeding.”
Mr. Prince has also tied his proposal to an effort to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, including rare earth deposits — a favorite topic of Mr. Trump, who has complained that the United States does not gain enough resources from its war efforts.
In one multimedia presentation that The Times has seen, Mr. Prince lists one of his goals as: “Develop and produce key rare earth minerals to restore U.S. high-tech manufacturing supply chain.” During his visits here in Afghanistan, he has also met with Afghan mining officials, which he has described as exploratory meetings.
Mr. Prince’s former company, Blackwater, won hundreds of millions of dollars in United States military contracts, mainly in Iraq, before it was essentially blacklisted after the firm’s contractors massacred civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
His business has since gone through several reincarnations. His latest venture, the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, has contracts in Africa and Asia, and is backed by Citic Group, a large state-owned Chinese investment company.
Mr. Prince’s initial push last year to privatize the Afghan war was quashed by two of the most senior members of Mr. Trump’s national security team: H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser at the time, and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary. They persuaded Mr. Trump to increase the number of troops and resources in Afghanistan.
Mr. Prince now gauges the winds in Washington as shifting in his favor, with Mr. McMaster gone and Mr. Mattis often at odds with Mr. Trump.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council, who was not authorized to speak publicly for attribution, said the administration was open to new approaches but was not reviewing a proposal from Mr. Prince.
During some of the meetings in Afghanistan, Mr. Prince has been introduced as someone who has Mr. Trump’s ear, with his close relations to the president’s inner circle listed as a selling point.