By David Nakamura
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; A08
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."
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.