If Afghanistan dissolves security firms, guards will join Taliban, some predict
KABUL -- The Watan Group's trained fighting force of 2,000 men, armed with rifles and rockets, battles daily to secure the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan so that critical supply convoys can reach U.S. and NATO troops.
As many as 50 guards are killed in Taliban ambushes each month, during fighting so fierce that the Afghan army and police force often refuse to help, said brothers Ahmad and Rashid Popal, who own the Watan Group.
Now, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to do away with Watan and 51 similar firms, both foreign and domestic, which employ more than 24,000 guards working mostly for Western entities. Karzai, who calls the independent fighting forces "thieves by day, terrorists by night," has set a four-month timeline to dissolve the companies and bring their workload under his government's control.
If Karzai gets his way, the Popal brothers predicted, transit routes will be impassable, foreign companies will leave Afghanistan, the economy will suffer, and -- perhaps most ominously -- unemployed security guards will turn to the insurgency. Most of Watan's contracts are with the U.S. military and NATO, which use 19,000 private guards.
"If you get rid of the guards, 60 to 65 percent of them will join the Taliban," said Rashid Popal, Watan's deputy chairman. "They won't join the government [forces]. If you go and die for the government, they don't take care of your family like we do. Their only alternative is the Taliban."
This bleak scenario has alarmed U.S. and NATO officials, who were blindsided by Karzai's announcement Monday. In a decree issued Tuesday, Karzai said private security personnel must join the Afghan police or quit working by the deadline. An exception will be made for guards on the property of international organizations, such as embassies, but the government will provide all off-campus security.
International leaders believe that Karzai's timeline is far too ambitious to ensure a smooth transition to another method of security.
"We are concerned that any quick action to remove private security companies may have unintended consequences, including the possible delay of U.S. reconstruction and development assistance efforts," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. "Private security companies are currently filling a gap."
U.S. Air Force Maj. Joel Harper, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said the issues "must be carefully considered by ISAF and the Afghan government in a logical and sequential manner."
A strain on U.S. relations
The matter threatened to accelerate the deterioration of relations between the United States and Karzai on a day when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with the Afghan president in Kabul and pushed him to crack down on government corruption.
"President Karzai is right on target in wanting to minimize private security company presence," Kerry said at a lunch with reporters. "Whether the four-month time frame is appropriate or meet-able, achievable with security needs in mind, is beyond me."
Major U.S.-based contractors, including Xe Services and DynCorp, which provide security-related services and police training in Afghanistan, declined to comment Tuesday. The union of Afghan security companies published a newspaper advertisement calling on Karzai to reconsider, lest he "disrespect the blood of the people who died defending this country from the Taliban terrorists."