Karzai To Ban Afghan Private Security Firms

Correction Aug. 17, 2010

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the firm Compass Security was suspended from its operations escorting convoys between Kabul and Kandahar because of bribery allegations. The temporary suspension resulted from an insurgent attack involving civilian deaths. Compass Security's operations were reinstated after about two weeks, and the Afghan government's investigation of the incident is ongoing. The previous version also incorrectly stated that Ahmad Wali Karzai has interests in two security firms, Watan Rick Management and Asia Security Group. An attorney for Karzai, in a letter to NPR, says there is no evidence that Karzai has any ownership interests in either firm or any other private security businesses in Afghanistan.

Afghan private security guard i i

hide captionA private security guard stands at a barrier outside a small hotel in Kabul. Private companies provide security for most foreign civilians in the war-torn country.

Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan private security guard

A private security guard stands at a barrier outside a small hotel in Kabul. Private companies provide security for most foreign civilians in the war-torn country.

Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to order all private security companies in his country to cease operations could put foreign civilians at risk and place a greater burden on U.S. and Afghan troops, analysts say.

A spokesman for the president said Karzai is preparing to issue a decree that would affect both domestic Afghan security companies and foreign companies that guard U.S. and NATO installations. The security firms would be ordered to disband within four months.

Karzai and other Afghan government officials have complained that private armed forces dilute the power and authority of the Afghan national army and police. They say the private companies are hard to regulate and restrain, and that they operate outside Afghan law.

A U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Joel Harper, issued a carefully worded statement of support for Karzai's "intent to do away with private security companies and to do away with the need for private security companies." Harper added, "this should be done in a logical and sequential manner, and as conditions permit."

Private Armies Employ Thousands

It will not be easy to shed the need for private security firms. Military officials told The Associated Press that there are about 26,000 contractors working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. Some 19,000 of them work for the U.S. military, where they do everything from guarding military bases to escorting supply convoys.

Diplomats, international aid groups and news organizations — including NPR — also use private protection forces.

Security analyst Thomas Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel, says the Karzai announcement reflects the "dysfunctional relations" between the Afghan president and the military coalition leadership.

"Here you have a major policy decision that affects combat operations, and it seems to have surprised the U.S. command," he said.

Hammes, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, notes that private security companies, mostly Afghan owned, currently provide most of the security for the truck convoys that bring coalition supplies into the country.

He says they have generally been successful because of "their contacts along the routes, their negotiating skills, and the ruthless application of firepower. I don't think Western forces would be able to do that as well."

Hammes thinks some of the convoy protection could be taken over by the Afghan army, but "that means they won't be out securing the countryside."

Security Companies Colluding With The Taliban?

Earlier this summer, a spate of news reports from Afghanistan suggested that the security companies that guard supply convoys may be part of the problem. The New York Times reported on allegations that some Afghan security firms may have bribed Taliban fighters to keep them from attacking the convoys.

Patricia DeGennaro, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, says the decree may be an example of Karzai negotiating for more power in a situation where Western forces and civilian aid organizations are heavily dependent on private contractors and won't be able to replace them anytime soon.

"It's especially detrimental to the civilian aid groups because they're not going to be able to rely on the Afghan security forces for protection," DeGennaro says. "It's going to come down to a situation where the internationals are going to have to make some kind of deal with the Karzai government."

Hammes says he thinks the deadline for disbanding the private security companies will have to be extended, while military and civilian groups figure out what to do.

Karzai has said repeatedly in recent months that the companies undermine government security forces, creating a parallel security structure. Earlier this month, he denounced private security company employees as "thieves during the day and terrorists during the night."

Previous Attempts To Curb Security Firms

This is not the first time the Afghan government has attempted to rein the security companies. In 2008, the government briefly tried to stop private companies from carrying guns, a move that would have created a crisis for aid groups and civilian government agencies that require that their employees be protected by armed guards.

His desire to ban the private security groups seems to reflect the thinking of the former top American commander in Afghanistan.

Before he was replaced earlier this year for making disparaging comments about the Obama administration, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said "the coalition in Afghanistan has become too dependent on private contractors."

Speaking at a military institute in France in April, McChrystal said he didn't believe the use of private contractor was saving money, and that the number of contractors should be reduced.

Over the past several years, incidents involving foreign contractors have embarrassed the U.S. government. In 2009, the Project on Government Oversight revealed that employees of ArmorGroup, the contractor that guards the U.S. embassy in Kabul, participated in "deviant hazing" at the embassy that involved heavy drinking and urinating on one another.

The British-based company responded by firing some guards and their managers.

A Senate investigation in February found that Xe, the security company formerly known as Blackwater, called on all its employees to wear handguns, even though some workers were not authorized to carry weapons. The investigators also alleged that Xe failed to exclude applicants with a background of violence and drug use during its hiring process.

The allegations were part of a probe into the 2009 killings of two Afghan civilians by Xe employees.

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