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If Afghanistan dissolves security firms, guards will join Taliban, some predict

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.

In addition to roads, private security firms in Afghanistan protect airports, guesthouses, businesses, universities and international dignitaries. Their guards are often better trained than Afghan soldiers and police, experts said.

But several companies have been implicated in the deaths of Afghan civilians and have been accused of paying the Taliban for safe passage. In May, for instance, a gardener working for a member of parliament was killed during a shootout between private guards and the Taliban in Wardak province. The Watan Group and another company, Dubai-based Compass Integrated Security Solutions, with more than 3,000 employees in Afghanistan, were banned from working on that highway for 10 days until they compensated the gardener's family.

The Popal brothers, who are distant cousins of Karzai's, maintain that the man was killed by insurgent fire. Compass officials declined to comment. Tuesday.

Ignoring the rules

Security firms are required to register with the Interior Ministry, but many don't, especially in the violent southern province of Kandahar, where warlords command massive private militias that flout a government cap of 500 security guards per firm.

The Popal brothers -- whose company also ignores the personnel limit -- said many of their guards are ex-Mujaheddin fighters tested in the Afghan civil war. Each employee is required to undergo five weeks of training on weapons and positioning; they earn about $600 monthly. In cities, they may carry assault rifles and pistols, according to government regulations, but in rural areas they can use rockets and heavier guns.

Gordon Anderson, vice president of administration and finance for the American University of Afghanistan, said his school has employed about 60 Watan Group guards for more than two years. They watch the front gate and accompany school administrators in vehicles, though they have never fired their weapons. If Watan is disbanded, Anderson said, that would "put us in a real bind."

"We would probably have to look seriously at providing our own security" for the university's 800 students and 60 faculty members, he said.

But Pierre Fallavier, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a private organization that terminated security contracts with Watan and the Olive Group, said such firms are mostly ineffective and too costly.

"Many are really useless," he said. "The big problem is not whether they are local or foreign, but that there is no accountability for what these guys do. When you start speaking with them -- especially if they've had a few drinks -- they are like murderers on the loose."

Special correspondent Quadratullah Andar contributed to this report.

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