It’s the late 1990s’ Clinton boom-boom years. You are a young millionaire US patriot with a Navy SEAL background. What are you gonna do? You invest in a badass private army start-up and you go fight “terra, terra, terra” across Dar al Islam. A single owner; no pesky stockholders; no board of directors; no government bureaucracy. You can be “nimble and aggressive.” You become – literally – the Prince of War. What’s not to like?
This is Erik Prince’s My Way, told with some measure of “contract humor” and the obligatory pious references to a “life’s mission” to “serve God, family and the United States”; this is the inside story of how Blackwater turned into “something resembling its own branch of the military” and “the ultimate tool in the war on terror.” In the manner of Audi extolling the merits of Vorsprung Durch Technik, Prince hails it as a “proud tale of performance excellence and driven entrepreneurialism.”
No question; God may be great, but he would certainly eschew a perpetual photo-op at the roof of the Sistine Chapel to be able to toy with such an awesome PMC (private military contractor). Prince, by the way, is ballsy enough to – correctly – depict Cristobal Colon, aka Columbus, in 1492 as a pioneering PMC.
Inevitably, this also had to be the story of how Blackwater “was slagged as the face of military evil,” “gun-toting bullets for hire.” So forget about Jeremy Scahill’s 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army indicting Prince’s creation; whatever end of the ideological spectrum – from an heir of Plato to an heir of Aristoteles and every political theorist in between – the real fun for the reader starts when Prince meticulously destroys US “politicians” who “feign indignation and pretend my men hadn’t done exactly what they had paid us handsomely to do.”
And handsomely that was. To star as a brand new branch of the military/security complex earned Blackwater a cool US$2 billion, providing weaponized thrills to the Pentagon, the State Department and – in the shadows – the CIA. Not bad for an initial investment of $6 million – Prince family money – on what was initially concocted “as a cross between a shooting range and a country club for special forces personnel” in back-of-beyond Moyock in North Carolina, on the eastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.
PMCs such as those employed by Blackwater – numbering a staggering 200,000 – would end up representing 54% of the Pentagon’s “workforce” in Afghanistan and Iraq, not including the 3,000 working for the State Department.
Now for the bad news in what’s billed as an inside story. Forget about finding anything about Blackwater in bed with the CIA. The agency redacted everything to unreadable status. What’s left is a lame postscript by a neo-con.
So nothing, for instance, about Blackwater Jason Bournes, uber-fixers past and present, and their adventures as part of an elite unit disguised under the bland acronym GRS (Global Response Staff). A clear case of (unwritten) shadow war. Just your average “surrogate army.”
In Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, Blackwater’s great coup was to befriend notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. The contact was Charlie Santos, a US rep for Saudi-based Delta Oil.
In the late 1990s, Santos was playing – what else – Pipelineistan, as in trying to convince the Taliban to accept the terms attached to the TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and (maybe) India. We all know how that ended. But because the Taliban later put out a fatwa of sorts on Santos, he conquered Dostum’s trust.
As the CIA typically had no decent ground intel and could not trust the Pakistani ISI (Inter Services Intelligence, Blackwater stepped in, “delivering” to the CIA not only Dostum but the flamboyant King of Herat, warlord Ishmail Khan.
Prince had me howling with laughter when he stresses that Blackwater maintained “the highest ethics while dealing with these contacts”; I pictured a Bunuel-esque Discreet Charm of the Afghan Bourgeoisie shot by Scorsese. Or Tarantino. Still one favor led to another, and by 2002 an incorporated offshoot, Blackwater Security Consulting, was tasked to provide security for the CIA headquarters in Kabul.
Then came “Operation Iraq Freedom.” Blackwater’s contribution to the birth pangs of a “free Iraq” was to protect the repellent Paul Bremer, he of the ridiculous navy blazer-and-combat boots outfit, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Prince does not explain the trickery for Blackwater to bag a $21.3 million, no-bid contract to become Bremer’s detail; just a “someone in the Army’s contracting department recommended Blackwater.”
I vividly remember Bremer’s caravan in action in the streets of Baghdad in the fall of 2003; to say that average Iraqis were terrified is a huge understatement. Yet Prince alerts: these were no war profiteers; just your average, innocent “private company providing armed guards to a war zone.”
It would take a Fort Meade roomful of computers to check/correct/edit Prince’s own version of, for instance, the “rebuilding” of Fallujah in April 2004 – dubbed Operation Vigilant Resolve – after the murder of four Blackwater contractors; or the 2004 Blackwater versus the Mahdi Army four-hour battle in Najaf (“no credit for or mention of Blackwater”).
Still, the real meat is in the saga of Blackwater creating a “high-visibility deterrent” protecting the State Department; as in “If our motorcades didn’t run, the State Department didn’t run.”
Prince is at pains to insist, “we drove aggressively, sometimes offensively.” Once again, sorry; with “an armored motorcade that trailed only the US Army and Marines,” the average Baghdadi could not but see a bunch of lethal maniacs. Iraqis – Sunni and Shi’ite alike – invariably described Blackwater’s shootings to me as “acts of terrorism.”
Who were these noble patriots/mercenaries? Prince answers: “Mainly former noncommissioned military officers and former members of the special operations services and elite light infantry … Roughly two-thirds were former US Army; about one-quarter were Marines, and the rest former Navy SEALs, police SWAT team officers, and former federal agents from the FBI, Secret Service and other agencies.”
All of them of course “proudly patriotic,” and cashing in as much as $650 for each 12-hour a day shift in the “hot zone.”
Talk about a super-deal for the Bush administration; Prince quotes reports certifying Blackwater as “a more cost-effective security option in Baghdad” than the Pentagon.
Blackwater reached the apex by 2007: nearly 2,500 contractors deployed in almost a dozen countries, with a database of 50,000 former special forces, soldiers and retired law enforcement types. Then came The Fall.
Prince is most effective – and unforgiving – while depicting the sunset George W. Bush years: “By late 2007 the company I’d built from scratch was being ground down by the plate tectonics of political battles in Washington.” The State Department was “legitimately terrified of the operational secrets I could divulge – specifically, the fact that everything Blackwater’s men did in Iraq was by State’s direct command.”
And politicians – what else is new – didn’t have a clue: “We were, after all, part of what then CENTCOM head Admiral William Fallon once gruffly referred to as the government’s ‘surrogate army.'”
By 2009, “Blackwater was publicly dragged through the mud.” And this while the State Department was also dirty as hell.
Yet by late 2009, after four years of Blackwater’s “myriad duties,” the “surrogate army” had earned over $1 billion from Foggy Bottom. Mud never tasted so good. PR nightmare or not, the company was finally renamed “Xe Services,” which, according to Prince, “means … nothing. Which was exactly the point.”
The early Obama years were bitter. Prince blames Hillary Clinton’s State Department for “theatrically exploding its relationship with Blackwater” in 2009 – and on top of it handing the ultra-lucrative gig to another contractor, Triple Canopy.
It was time to bow out; Prince sold Blackwater in 2010; it’s now a softy outfit known as Academi – still protecting diplomats and providing “training.” PMC competitors DynCorp and Triple Canopy, though, are still thriving, not to mention the Brits with Aegis and Blue Mountain.
Make no mistake – with or without Blackwater, “surrogate armies” are the future. The United Nations will eventually use them; peacekeeping forces – I’ve seen a few – are usually staffed by frankly incompetent soldiers from very low-income countries. Prince does not seem to want to corner this market, even though, in the mid-2000s, Blackwater pitched exactly the same thing to the State Department: a “relief with teeth” humanitarian team, as in a privately trained 1,700-strong “peacekeeping package,” complete with its own air force, helicopters, cargo ships, aerial surveillance, medical supply chain and combat group.
Prince now lives in Abu Dhabi and sees Africa as the new Holy Grail (AFRICOM would concur), investing in logistics/security services to the booming oil and gas industry. He has delocalized and diversified – just like the Pentagon; one may bet that at least half of the Pentagon’s humongous budget will remain outsourced for the foreseeable future.
And the revolving door is not going away – with so many aspiring Princes of War leaving the sprawling Pentagon-centric system to launch their own start-ups and sell stuff to their former buddies on the inside, not to mention ensuring that the militarized assembly line keeps churning “unsung heroes.” So many wars on myriad global terrors to prosecute, so precious few surrogate armies.
Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, by Erik Prince. Portfolio Hardcover (November 18, 2013). ISBN-13: 978-1591847212. Price US$15.33 (Kindle $13.99); 416 pages.