On March 15, Mehdi Hasan interviewed Erik Prince on the Al Jazeera show Head to Head. Much as the show’s title suggests, Hasan is a hard-hitting questioner eager for that “got you” moment. Hasan was well prepared with Prince’s congressional testimony in hand and appears to have caught Prince in some double talk about an August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower (with George Nader, Joel Zamel, Steven Miller, and Donald Trump Jr). In the interview, Prince, after he mistakenly asserted he had told Congress about the meeting, also disclosed what the meeting was about: Iran policy.
As Hasan writes in his blog, in a November 2017 testimony, Prince denied any formal connection to the Trump campaign so this revelation appears to catch him lying. Prince’s excuse – that the testimony on record must be wrong – was aptly described as “cringe-worthy” on MSNBC. Hasan asks what Prince has to hide. We are all wondering and I respect Hasan’s preparation and willingness to press hard for this moment.
Hasan’s style of questioning was so focused on that “got you” moment, though, that he left important questions about other issues unasked. The answers to these questions may not open an investigation on Prince but they might help us understand the logic behind Prince’s plans in Afghanistan, his involvement, via Frontier Services Group(FSG) in China, and how he sees the role of companies like FSG in American foreign policy. FSG, like some other private military and security companies (PMSCs), such as the Wagner Group, has not only been active and in the news, but also operates outside the governance system that has grown to regulate this industry.
When Hasan asked about how Prince’s plan for Afghanistan could possibly work given that many more US and NATO forces had not been successful, Prince replied that his plan would rationalise the effort in Afghanistan. But how? Prince filled in one detail: continuity. This is actually a reasonable response. It is often the case that contractors can keep people in the field longer than the military can and continuity is one of the long ago mentioned advantages of using them. But what else? We do not know.
I am on the record (more than once) voicing scepticism about Prince’s plan to privatise the Afghan war. PMSCs work differently from military forces and that should lead us to doubt their counterinsurgency value. Different recruitment, motivation, rules, training, and flexibility have contributed to concerns over misbehaviour by individuals, PMSCs, and the governments (and other clients) that contract with them. While the International Code of Conduct (ICoC), Private Security Standards, and other transnational regulatory efforts draw PMSCs closer to rules for public forces, Prince’s plans would violate some of those regulations. Nothing I heard in the interview changed my mind.
Hasan also pushed Prince hard on the abuses in Iraq. The abuse was not confined to Blackwater, but Blackwater became the shorthand for offensive contractors in Iraq. Why that had little to do with whether Blackwater personnel were angels or not – few were in that context. Instead, what mattered was what Blackwater, as a company, did to limit the risk of misconduct before it happened and then how it held its personnel accountable when something did happen. The company fell short on both of these. The most useful intervention was from Ghaith Abdul Ahad, an Iraqi journalist who clearly appreciated how Blackwater was understood in that country, as synonymous with corruption, violence, and all that was wrong with the US invasion. The name “Blackwater” became one and the same with a “bad contractor” not because of what it was but because of what it did.
Hasan also asked about the work FSG was planning in Xinjiang, China where Uighur Muslims are reportedly being held in detention. Here again, Hasan was prepared for the “got you”. He had the FSG press release, but I am not sure he understood exactly what it meant. Prince said FSG was working on a construction contract and nothing in the text read by Hasan indicated that it was anything other than establishing a facility, and that could reasonably be understood as a construction project. If Prince did actually provide military training in China without a license from the US State Department, he could be in violation of US law. But there are very important other questions that do not involve legal wrongdoing. Who is FSG working for in building this facility? What else are they doing in China besides the kidnapping training that Prince mentioned? Again, asking these may not incriminate Prince, but could give us important insights into FSG, its clients, and its operations in China.
Among the more interesting responses from Prince, I thought, was his assertion that US foreign policy was under the thumb of the “military industrial complex“. While many might agree, they are far to the left of Trump and most of them would consider Prince, especially when he owned Blackwater, to be part of that complex. Why does Prince see himself as different? Not a trap question, but one that might give us much more insight into how Prince (and potentially Trump) sees the world and the more traditional security policy establishment. As a scholar and citizen wondering how the US will act on the global stage during the Trump presidency and where it will go after the growing polarisation, I would like to hear the answer.
Mehdi Hasan was well-prepared to trap Erik Prince with questions about his conduct – and he did. This is an important step for which he should be congratulated. Had he been better prepared to listen to Prince’s responses and use Prince’s answers to shape the interview, though, we might have found out more about the logic driving a part of the PMSC industry that is largely spurning the fledgeling governance system that the US has supported. As the number and variety of these PMSCs continues to grow and American support for the governance system is under some question, I hope other journalists will aim for a more nuanced understanding that will help us understand it and shape its behaviour.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.