Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decree ordering private security companies operating in Afghanistan to leave the country by year's end complicates U.S. strategy in an already troubled, nearly nine-year-old war. Confronted with a robust Taliban-led insurgency and slow progress in raising capable Afghan security forces, U.S. officials have complained that Karzai's deadline for getting rid of the contractors, on whom allied forces are heavily reliant, is unrealistic. And it could have a major impact on Afghanistan's security situation.
Pressure has grown in recent months for Karzai to assert control over the private security companies, as media reports and a damning U.S. congressional investigation have exposed reckless and unlawful behavior by contractors. The President's order, issued Tuesday, Aug. 17, applies to roughly 25,000 armed guards most of them Afghans employed by more than 50 government-registered companies contracted to protect NATO supply convoys, bases, political figures and other organizations. An exception was made for private security firms working inside compounds used by international groups, embassies, businesses and nongovernmental organizations based outside the capital.
While they support the principle of Afghan government control, U.S. officials contend that a shift of this scale is too much, too soon. At last count, Afghan government forces totaled about 225,000, of varying quality, joined by close to 150,000 foreign troops spread out across a vast country of some 30 million people. That's far less than what military planners would like to have in a counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting civilians. To help fill the gap, about 19,000 contractors are currently on the U.S. military's payroll. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday that private security is still needed. In any case, insists a senior U.S. military officer serving in Afghanistan, four months is an impossible time frame. "No way," he says, pointing to the absence of a plan for implementation and to the manpower shortage. "[Karzai's decree] is just not realistic. It leaves a lot of questions that require answers."
Karzai's order states that the contractors guarding embassies, aid agencies and foreign businesses in Kabul will be replaced by the Afghan National Police, a prospect that raises concerns because of the frequency of high-profile attacks on Western facilities. Underpaid, ill-equipped and prone to infiltration by insurgents, the Afghan police have a track record that does not inspire confidence. Afghan officials counter that part of the problem lies in the fact that top prospects are lured away by better-paying jobs at private firms, to the detriment of the quality of the security forces.
Karzai has previously made sweeping pronouncements to stoke nationalist feelings when he deemed it politically useful to do so. The decree on security contractors was viewed by many in such a light, given the growing anger against foreign companies that have harmed Afghan civilians. On Tuesday, two employees of Xe Services, the military security contractor formerly known as Blackwater, were arraigned in Virginia on charges of fatally shooting two Afghans following a May 2009 traffic accident in Kabul. In July, an SUV driven by employees of DynCorp International was part of a crash that left four people dead, rousing a crowd at the scene to chant, "Death to America." Analysts see September's parliamentary elections as adding to the incentive for Karzai to play to the crowd.
But the President's spokesman, Waheed Omar, insists the order will apply to all companies, a sign that the President may be moving against those who implicitly challenge the writ of his government. In Uruzgan province, for instance, the warlord who oversees security on one stretch of the Kabul-Kandahar highway now reportedly commands a 1,500-strong militia and is widely acknowledged to be the most powerful man in the province. At the same time, the leadership of several major private companies that stand to be affected have close links to the President and his Cabinet. NLC Holdings is run by Karzai's cousins; Watan Risk Management, another company that guards American convoys, is headed by the Defense Minister's son. Selective enforcement of the decree would leave Karzai open to more charges of corruption.
A larger concern is the many violent militias that function off the books, fielding thousands of armed men in dangerous parts of the country a hedge against the Taliban, but mostly unaccountable to the state. In some cases, unlicensed companies stand accused of bribing the Taliban to ensure safe passage for convoys. In the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, armed plainclothes men continue to roam openly in the streets. Some allegedly belong to militia linked to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's half brother and head of the provincial council, whom the President has so far balked at reining in. Details of his new plan have yet to emerge, but the devil may be in them.