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Karzai scraps guns for hire, but where do the gunslingers go?

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-08-20

As threatened, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has banned private security firms. But the devil of this decree lies in the details and there’s precious little of it, raising the spectre of increased insecurity.

Few Afghans doubt the long-term wisdom of trying to establish a private-security-firm-free country. The most noxious among the tens of thousands of international private security personnel that swarm Afghan hotspots tend to sport beefed-up biceps, steroid-enhanced chests, signature wraparound sunglasses and abrasive personalities that do little to endear them to the Afghan population.

More damaging by far are the occasional, but high-profile deadly incidents involving some of the more infamous groups operating in Afghanistan. A US Senate investigation in February found that a US firm formerly known as Blackwater tolerated gross personnel misbehaviour, improper use of weapons and violation of alcohol consumption policies - to name just a few serious lapses.

Two former employees of Blackwater, now renamed Xe, currently face charges of killing two Afghan civilians in 2009 in a US court in Virginia.

This is the ugly backdrop to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decree, issued on Tuesday, ordering the 52 registered private security contractors operating in the country to cease operations by January 1.

For most people, private security companies conjure up images of marauding foreign mercenaries with scant knowledge or respect for local sensitivities. Few however realise that in Afghanistan today, unlike in Iraq during the peak war years, the bulk of the private security industry is manned by local Afghans.

Figures on this lucrative sector of the Afghan economy are hard to obtain. While Afghan authorities say around 26,000 registered armed personnel are employed across the country, a former deputy interior minister has put the figure at 50,000. These numbers do not include the plethora of unregistered companies.

According to Guillaume Lasconjarias, a military historian and researcher at the Institute for Strategic Research, a French Defence Ministry think-tank, about 70 percent of private security personnel in Afghanistan today are locals. By contrast, in Iraq, locals filled around 18 percent of similar posts, he notes.

“In Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq, there is a huge supply of armed men or men trained to fight over three decades of conflict,” explains Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network. “Afghan private security men are often related to the Afghan civil war factions. These are men who were once under a commander and are now in uniforms and being paid by the US government or other international organisations.”

Nephews, brothers, cousins and sons

According to Clark, some of the Afghans in the business “go straight to the heart of the Afghan elite. There are nephews, brothers, cousins and sons of governors, ministers and senior police officers involved in these firms.”

For instance, Hamed Wardak, the founder and CEO of NCL Holdings, a Virginia registered company with multiple logistic and security projects in Afghanistan, is the son of Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Another well-known Afghan private security firm, Watan Risk Management, part of the Kabul-based Watan Group, was co-founded by Rashid Popal, a cousin of President Karzai.

Over the past few months, the international community has grown accustomed to anti-Western tirades by the embattled Afghan president. But the fact that the latest presidential decree affects some prominent Afghans in a notoriously corrupt nation has experts puzzling over the motivation for Karzai’s latest initiative.

“Who knows?” says Clark. “It’s a very hastily written decree and it’s a very curious move for various reasons.”

The timing of the decree, just weeks before the Sept. 17 Afghan parliamentary elections, has raised questions over whether Karzai was firing off another populist salvo before what looks like another severely compromised Afghan electoral.

“It might have something to do with trying to get control of the market,” muses Clark, noting that contracts for private security companies are often very lucrative. Experts say unregulated chunks of security contracts make their way into Taliban hands when private companies securing supply convoys pay the Taliban to pass through areas under their control.

“There’s evidence that the Taliban are being paid off,” said Clark. “And we have evidence that some government and police officials are also demanding payments.”

Another theory is that the latest move is aimed at reigning over local warlords, whose substantial militias pose a threat to Karzai’s administration.

Too much, too soon

While there’s little doubt that Kabul needs to exert authority across the largely mountainous and dangerous country, the lack of detail or planning behind the Aug. 17 presidential decree has sparked howls of protests from many quarters.

While supporting the principle of Afghan government control, US officials have voiced fears that the decree does too much too soon. British private security firms have raised concerns that major infrastructural projects would stall due to failures to secure sites. And Nepali embassy officials have taken up the issue with their Afghan counterparts, according to a local news report.

Some of the direst warnings have come from Afghan-owned firms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Rashid Popal, Karzai’s cousin and deputy chairman of the Watan Group, warned that the dissolution of private security firms could result in unemployed personnel joining the Taliban.

Choosing police or criminal gangs

The Afghan government has acknowledged that the decree would be difficult to implement, but it maintains that the contractors will be replaced by the Afghan police and army.

A former Afghan deputy interior minister believes the Afghan police force is not ready to take on the security firms' responsibilities.

"The timetable set for disbandment of the security companies is insufficient," General Abdul Hadi Khaled told the AFP. "The interior ministry does not have enough training centres to train police for the security of NATO convoys and big businesses. Thinking the police will be able to take the job of private security companies in four months is no more than a dream."

Even if there’s a will to try to absorb private security troops into the Afghan security forces, Lasconjarias doubts many guards would accept the offer.

“It’s going to be a real problem to make them join the Afghan services,” says Lasconjarias. “It’s a matter of pay, because (private security) contractors these days are paid approximately $500 to $600 per month while an Afghan police official makes around $240 per month.”

For Lasconjarias, the outcome of the decree looks grim. “For the people who lose their jobs, the question is what will they do – will they join the Taliban or will they take to robbing ordinary Afghans.”

The decree’s failure to address what happens to the arsenal of sophisticated small arms owned by these private security firms has also raised real fears that the biggest winners of the latest policy could either be the Taliban or organized criminal gangs. And that, for most Afghans, is not a pleasant choice.

Date created : 2010-08-19


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