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White House weighs unprecedented plan to privatize much of the war in Afghanistan

| Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, 7:51 p.m.
Airman First Class Henry Abreu Maria leans into the door of the transfer vehicle at the end of a dignified transfer ceremony for Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter and Spc. Christopher Michael Harris at Dover Air Force Base August 4, 2017 in Dover, Delaware. Both soldiers died when a car bomb detonated near their convoy August 2, 2017, while supporting U.S. operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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Airman First Class Henry Abreu Maria leans into the door of the transfer vehicle at the end of a dignified transfer ceremony for Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter and Spc. Christopher Michael Harris at Dover Air Force Base August 4, 2017 in Dover, Delaware. Both soldiers died when a car bomb detonated near their convoy August 2, 2017, while supporting U.S. operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The White House is actively considering a bold plan to turn over a big chunk of the U.S. war in Afghanistan to private contractors in an effort to turn the tide in a stalemated war, according to the former head of a security firm pushing the project.

Under the proposal, 5,500 private contractors, primarily former Special Operations troops, would advise Afghan combat forces. The plan also includes a 90-plane private air force that would provide air support in the nearly 16-year-old war against Taliban insurgents, Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater security firm, told USA Today.

The unprecedented proposal comes as the U.S.-backed Afghan military faces a stalemate in the war and growing frustration by President Trump about the lack of progress in the war.

The U.S. military has 8,400 U.S. troops there to train and guide local forces. They do not have a direct combat role, and presumably would be replaced gradually by the contractors.

The plan remains under serious consideration within the White House despite misgivings by Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Other White House officials, such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon, appear open to using private contractors.

"At what point do you say a conventional military approach in Afghanistan is not working," said Prince, a former Navy SEAL. "Maybe we say that at 16 years."

Blackwater, founded 1997, worked extensively in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prince sold the company in 2010.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Prince said the plan will cost less than $10 billion a year, significantly lower than the more than $40 billion the Pentagon has budgeted this year.

The prospect of accomplishing more with less money could appeal to a career businessman like Trump.

Prince, who has met frequently with administration officials to discuss his plan, is the brother of Trump's education secretary, Betsy Devos.

Under his proposal, private advisers would work directly with Afghanistan combat battalions throughout the country, and the air force would be used for medical evacuation, fire support and ferrying troops.

Prince said the contractors would be "adjuncts" of the Afghan military and would wear that nation's military uniforms. Pilots would only drop ordnance with Afghan government approval, he said.

Currently, troops from a U.S.-led coalition are stationed primarily at top level headquarters and are not embedded with conventional combat units in the field. Under the plan the contractors would be embedded with Afghanistan's more than 90 combat battalions throughout the country.

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