The Afghanistan government on Thursday unequivocally rejected the idea of replacing U.S. and other international troops assisting in the fight against the Taliban with private contractors, an idea promoted by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and went so far as to threaten legal action against those who send in mercenaries.
“The war on terrorism is led — and will continue to be led — by Afghan national security and defense forces with support from our international allies,” said the statement released by Afghanistan’s Office of National Security Council.
“Under no circumstances will the Afghan government and people allow the counterterrorism fight to become a private, for-profit business.”
The statement comes as Prince has continued to argue in public appearances that his army of private security forces and contract pilots could provide the same support for the Afghan government at a fraction of the cost.
But U.S. and Afghan officials have rejected the idea, arguing it would impinge on Afghanistan’s sovereignty and compromise the standards enforced by the highly-trained U.S. military.
The statement denounced what it called a “destructive and divisive debate,” and threatened unspecified actions against any effort to allow mercenaries to operate on Afghan soil.
“As a sovereign nation, we will consider all legal options against those who try to privatize war on our land,” it said.
Asked at a Pentagon news conference if he agreed with Prince’s argument that his private contractors could do a better job than the U.S. military, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central command said, “I absolutely do not agree.”
“I think this has been addressed by a number of others including the secretary of defense, the government of Afghanistan, and I think recently by members of Congress,” Votel said. “So, I do not agree that that would be a better approach.”
Votel said the bilateral defense agreement with Afghanistan specifically bars the uses of mercenaries or private contractors.
But Votel said the most significant downside is that the U.S. would be turning over defense of its vital national interests to contractors, which he noted Mattis has said is not a very good strategy.
The Afghan government argues that any use of private contractors would introduce “new foreign and unaccountable elements” into the war and violates the principle that Afghans should determine their own future.
“Afghan security and defense forces, under the framework of all applicable laws of the country, have the primary responsibility and authority for safeguarding the noble values of Islam, our national sovereignty, and the independence and territorial integrity of our beloved country and people,” the statement said.
As the war in Afghanistan approaches its 17th anniversary, Votel insisted the strategy announced last year by President Trump to drive the Taliban to the bargaining table is succeeding.
“This strategy is sound, and it is working, whereas the Taliban's strategy of waiting us out is an untenable one,” Votel said, while acknowledging a “challenging fight remains as we work with regional and international partners to apply the military pressure to the Taliban that will convince them that reconciliation is the only way forward.”