By Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A01
KABUL -- American officials were stunned Monday by a surprise announcement from President Hamid Karzai's spokesman calling for the dissolution within four months of the private security companies that foreign armies and aid organizations in Afghanistan rely on to do their daily work.
The move signaled a new effort by the Karzai government to assert Afghan control over the work of foreigners, and it presented a fresh challenge to the United States government, which quickly made clear its belief that the deadline was too ambitious.
The U.S. military alone employs about 19,000 private security guards in Afghanistan, to provide security for everything from logistics convoys to military bases. The numbers have increased sharply as the United States has dispatched more troops to contend with a growing insurgency, with violence at record levels. Most of the guards are Afghan.
"Four months is a very challenging deadline," the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said in Washington. He said that "at this moment, we believe that there is still a need for private security companies to . . . continue to operate in Afghanistan."
Karzai had previously made it clear that he wanted security efforts consolidated under Afghan control, but he had mentioned timetables stretching into late 2011 or even 2014. Some U.S. military officials in Kabul said they saw the announcement as an attempt by Karzai to seize a stronger bargaining position, and they said that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan, will now face the challenge of persuading Karzai to back away from his latest stance.
"What this timeline means is withdrawal," said a Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the new dispute. "The discussion that needs to happen now is: What do you really want? What are your real concerns? Let's draw up a different plan."
Fifty-two licensed private security firms operate extensively in Afghanistan, employing more than 25,000 people. Among the major American firms are Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, and Triple Canopy.
About half of the companies employed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan are Afghan-owned, including Watan Risk Management, run by two of Karzai's cousins, and NLC Holdings, which provides security for U.S. military convoys and is run by Hamed Wardak, the son of the defense minister. Many other companies are unlicensed and have been accused of operating as violent militias that often bribe the Taliban for safe passage.
Private security companies have left a checkered record in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, with periodic allegations of employee misconduct. Afghan officials have complained that many private security firms act recklessly and are unanswerable to local law. The U.S. military acknowledges that the companies need better oversight and training so that they do not behave as trigger-happy mercenaries.
In Iraq, similar protests by the Iraqi government ultimately led to an agreement with the United States that stripped contractors of their legal immunity. But the Iraqi government never called for the complete withdrawal of private security companies, not even after a September 2007 shootout in downtown Baghdad that involved Blackwater guards and killed 17 people.
Brig. Gen. Margaret Boor, the head of a new NATO task force on private security companies in Afghanistan, said Monday that the U.S. military supports Karzai's intention to phase out private security companies. But she said that the time frame should be based on improving security and a growth in the capability of the Afghan army and police.
"Since the Afghan army and the Afghan police are not quite at the stages of capability and capacity to provide all the security that's needed, private security companies are filling a gap," Boor said. "So what they do is important."
The confrontational move by Karzai was the second he has aimed at the United States this month, beginning with his criticism of U.S.- and British-backed anti-corruption authorities who investigated an Afghan national security aide. A commission formed by Karzai accused the Westerners of operating outside the constitution and violating human rights in their work as mentors to an elite Afghan law enforcement body known as the Major Crimes Task Force and the Special Investigative Unit.
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said that the details of the plan would be spelled out in a presidential decree to be published Tuesday. He said he had not read the decree and that it was still being revised, but that it would establish governmental structure to oversee the transition of Afghan private guards into the security forces.
While some U.S. military officials said they thought Karzai's intention was to focus on disbanding foreign security firms, Omar said the decree would apply to all companies.
"It doesn't apply only to foreigners. It's all private security firms," he said. "Getting the people who might lose their jobs, getting them into the national army and the national police, there will be a process."
Karzai's move was greeted by confusion among some contractors. Ahmed Rateb Popal, an executive at Watan Risk Management, said the federation of private security companies had scheduled a meeting for Monday evening to discuss the new deadline.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.