DW: The New York Times has recently reported that several of top advisers to President Donald Trump have suggested replacing US military personnel in Afghanistan with private contractors. What, in your view, are the reasons that are driving them to push for such a strategy?
Michael Kugelman: President Trump’s advisers are looking for new ideas on Afghanistan, and that’s actually a good thing. It’s very clear that what the US has tried in recent years simply hasn’t worked, so out-of-the-box thinking is likely seen as a welcome thing in the White House.
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Also, I imagine there’s a willingness to engage with a business community that is very important to the Trump administration, given that Trump and many of his senior aides had been in the business world prior to entering government.
There are also more tactical reasons: the use of contractors in Afghanistan could conceivably save costs and if we assume that many contractors would not be Americans then fewer American lives would be placed at risk.
Kugelman: ‘As with so many policy issues in the Trump White House, it depends on which faction of the administration has Trump’s ear’
In effect there are quite a few reasons, some of them quite understandable, for Trump advisers to float this idea. But at the end of the day the justifications can’t get around the fact that such a plan would not just be hard to pull off, it would also be downright dangerous and highly destabilizing for Afghanistan and the broader region.
Is this idea likely to translate into action?
As with so many policy issues in the Trump White House, it depends on which faction of the administration has Trump’s ear. The Steve Bannon – White House Chief Strategist – wing of the White House, which devised this idea, is influential but there have been indications that it’s lost some of its clout.
As Trump has delegated full authority to the Pentagon and specifically Defense Secretary James Mattis to oversee Afghanistan policy, I think it’s quite unlikely that this idea will ever be implemented.
Mattis has already expressed his opposition by refusing to include the idea in his broader review and I imagine he would understand the grave risks of such a policy.
Does making such a suggestion by the Bannon wing indicate that there are huge differences over how Trump’s top advisers and military generals see the situation in Afghanistan?
Absolutely. This suggestion crystallizes the divide between the rightwing isolationist faction of the Trump White House, led by Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and the more pragmatic, centrist team led by Mattis and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.
Bannon and his allies want to lighten the US footprint in the world while Mattis and his allies are keen to maintain US leadership – including in Afghanistan. Sending in more contractors and fewer troops would reduce the role of the US military while saving costs. This idea reflects the thinking of the Bannon faction but likely makes the Mattis crowd, which knows Afghanistan extremely well, very uneasy.
What has been the scope of involvement of contractors such as DynCorp and Blackwater in Afghanistan since the US invaded the country in 2001?
When you think of the major defense contractors in war zones, DynCorp and especially Blackwater are the first ones that come to mind. They have been very active in Afghanistan and Iraq. To be sure, in Afghanistan their involvement was particularly robust between 2001 and 2014, when the US was officially fighting a combat war.
How would a US mission in Afghanistan look like if it were to be handed over to private defense contractors?
It’s hard to figure what exactly a contractor-led mission would look like. At the very least, you’d likely have military operations occurring on a more covert level than now, which raises all kinds of troubling questions.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), we can assume, would take on a larger role. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of such a plan would be less what the mission would look like, but how Afghans would perceive and respond to it. There is already concern and much conspiratorial thinking in Afghanistan and Pakistan about the role of the CIA and the lack of accountability in US policy.
If you put contractors at the forefront of US security policy in Afghanistan, I imagine many Afghans could turn against the United States and the Afghan government. In the end, the Taliban, as has so often been the case over the last 15 years, would have the last laugh.
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What will be Trump’s Afghanistan strategy and when do you believe it will come out?
My sense is the Trump administration will send in several thousand more troops to strengthen the training mission and supplement counterterrorism efforts. Beyond that, the overall strategy is very unclear. I fear that diplomatic strategies could be a casualty, given Trump’s decision to delegate responsibility for Afghanistan policy to the Defense Department and the marginalization of the State Department in US foreign policy.
I do think, however, that the White House will come around to the realization that a robust policy of engagement with Kabul is essential to accompany a mini-troop surge. But the question is who would lead a US diplomatic strategy. The first step, above all, is to appoint and confirm a new ambassador to Kabul. Once you have the envoy in place, then the rest can follow.
My sense is the new strategy should be announced sometime this month, though it’s been a long process and could well extend deeper into the summer before a decision is made.
Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
The interview was conducted by Masood Saifullah.