Privatize the War in Afghanistan?

Published May 21, 2017

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, has made some waves concerning Afghanistan. He says we should move from an army of occupation to something like a private army, following the model of the army of the British East India Company.

In 1608, at about the same time that British colonies were being organized along the Atlantic coast of North America, the British East India Company was establishing trading posts in the vast Indian subcontinent, with the permission or at least the tolerance of the rulers of the then Mughal Empire.

During the next century, the British East India Company waxed and the Mughal Empire waned. The process involved changing loyalties of local rulers, who had always exercised considerable autonomy. Many of these changes in loyalty were, shall we say, motivated by tangible considerations.

Early on, the British East India Company introduced armed guards for its trading posts. These armed guards turned into regiments and then into armies. Some of the regiments were simply British regiments assigned to India, and some featured officers and non-commissioned officers who were British, and soldiers who were Indian. Eventually, there were also regiments that were fully Indian.

These regiments were organized into three armies: Bengal, Madras and Bombay, corresponding to the three “presidencies” of the company. Only following the formation of the British Raj in 1858, were these armies – or what remained of them after the Rebellion of 1857 – united, forming the basis of the modern army of India.

Also instrumental in the emergence of modern India was the development of its railroad system.  The country’s first lines ran from its major port cities inland, and were financed with capital raised in London. Eventually, a network of railroad lines crisscrossed the nation, facilitating internal as well as external transportation and trade. Unfortunately, the country’s gauge differs from those to the west, the north and the east. But, this has been of little consequence to India’s development.

The emergence of India as a unified nation thus involved a long process of developing the institutions of a unified nation. Not merely the assertion of a national identity. Even so, the expanse of the British Raj – which at its height ranged from Pakistan in the west to Burma in the east, and included Sri Lanka – was perhaps too much to encompass within one nation at the time of independence in 1947. During this long process, discretion in the exercise of soft and of hard power, and doing this in a way that was profitable (or “sustainable” in today’s p.-c. speak) were all necessary, which is not to say that no mistakes were ever made.

As to how the experience of the British East India Company might apply to Afghanistan today, it is easy to see many similar conditions such as lack of national unity and tribal jealousies, and a national army that is unable to defend the nation. But, along with these impediments, there are billions or perhaps trillions of dollars in natural resources to be developed.

Securing the production of these natural resources, and securing the trade routes through which these resources might be marketed hardly sounds like a priority for the United States. Our concerns are national security and the promotion of human rights in the world. And, yet, developing the natural resources of Afghanistan can be instrumental in enabling that country to develop its capacity to defend itself.