A few months into President Trump's administration, Erik Prince set out to write an editorial that would privatize the Afghanistan War.
"I wrote it for an audience of one, and it worked," the Blackwater Worldwide founder told the Washington Examiner. "I got a call from the White House the day after it ran, and they said the president read it and liked it."
As Trump reviewed strategy for the nation's longest war, Prince proposed a "viceroy" in the mold of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, one of Trump's heroes who ruled occupied Japan after World War II, and troops replaced with contractors embedded with locals, modeled off the British East India Company.
Prince theorized the approach, coupled with improved air support and a slim special forces presence, would allow for a rapid end to the 16-year war.
The May op-ed contributed to internal White House debate and meetings between Prince and officials who pressed for details. Despite apparent interest, however, Trump in August selected a cautious approach featuring a troop increase.
Prince blames temporary political circumstances, and the contracting pioneer who led Blackwater to nearly $2 billion in U.S. government deals, including in Iraq, before stepping down as CEO in 2009, believes Trump will come around.
"Whether it's six months or a year, I don't think the president wants to go into the midterms with thousands of American soldiers at risk," Prince said.
Although he says he hasn't spoken to Trump since his inauguration, Prince said he has allies within the administration — "more than you would think" — and that "the president speaks to people not just in the White House."
Prince said political fallout from clashes featuring white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., "made the president more reluctant about taking a more controversial change of course in Afghanistan" and that "barring the Charlottesville debacle, I don't think the president could have made the same decision."
A wealthy businessman, Prince donated $250,000 to Trump and allied GOP efforts in 2016. With encouragement from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, he's weighing a 2018 Wyoming Senate campaign. Bannon left the White House days before Trump's Afghanistan announcement, as chief of staff John Kelly gained clout.
Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and currently leads Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong-traded company that supports investment in developing nations.
The outline of Prince's Afghanistan plan has received mixed reviews from experts.
Adrian Lewis, a military historian at the University of Kansas, said it could be a way to avoid over-stretching the military while avoiding a draft.
"The current force is incapable of rapidly expanding," Lewis said. "Given the current commitments of the Army and Marine Corps and the situation in Korea, it is an approach that we should consider."
Stephen Biddle of George Washington University, however, expressed doubts. "The basic problem in Afghanistan is a corrupt, cronyist Afghan military," said Biddle, who has served on U.S. military strategic assessment teams focused on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"If Prince ever persuades Trump to buy this plan, the consequences are very unlikely to serve U.S. national interests," he said. "Prince's old firm, Blackwater, is not exactly popular in Iraq, where they had extensive experience on the ground."
David Sedney, a former deputy ambassador in Afghanistan, said the idea may be a tough sell for Afghans, as private security forces did a poor job training police and "created an environment from 2002-2010 that led to great hostility."
"Bad behavior on the part of private security companies has really poisoned the well," said Sedney, who recalls sending home men for actions such as drunk-driving while shooting dogs. He said some firms now are operating professionally, but there remains "political toxicity."
"People would never accept it," he said.
Prince, however, says radical change is needed after nearly two decades, and described his idea as motivated more by patriotism than money. "There are already 29,000 contractors in Afghanistan; this plan takes it to under 6,000 in two years," he said.
But he does see one major challenge: the number of generals around Trump, including Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. McMaster, he said, dismissed the idea immediately.
"There are a lot more flag officers in the bubble than you would usually have," he said. "Usually, you only have one."