NATO allies ask Karzai to allow private security for aid programs

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 9:29 PM

KABUL - The United States and its NATO allies, worried about how the Afghan government's ban on private security companies might affect their operations, have asked President Hamid Karzai to sign a letter allowing such companies to continue protecting the foreign aid community, according to Western officials in Kabul.

Karzai was given the letter by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander here, while they flew to Kandahar on Saturday, and he had been expected to sign it Monday, according to minutes of a U.S. Embassy meeting on the topic obtained by The Washington Post. But he has not yet done so, and U.S. officials have warned that the issue could escalate quickly.

The minutes of Tuesday's meeting, written by a U.S. Agency for International Development official, said William E. Todd, a top embassy official, told the group that without Karzai's signature, the U.N. assistance mission here "would step in with its intention to close down all donor programs in Afghanistan, [and] next it could rise up to Secretary of State Clinton personally telephoning President Karzai. President Karzai was made aware that billions of dollars are at stake."

In August, Karzai issued a surprise order to disband all private security firms in Afghanistan within four months. Since then, his government has refined its position, saying it will first dismantle unlicensed companies that protect supply convoys on the highways and whose guards have often been accused of shooting wildly and antagonizing Afghans. Karzai has assured the United States and other countries that they can keep private security guards at embassies, military bases and other sites where foreigners work, according to the president's spokesman, Waheed Omar.

"It's not going to be a hasty dismantling of those companies that are protecting foreign missions and premises," Omar said. He said he was not aware of a letter for Karzai to sign.

But without Karzai's written approval, U.S. officials remain uncertain about the implementation of his order. The Interior Ministry has drafted a three-part plan calling for first phasing out the unlicensed companies that work the highways, followed by those that have violated the law and finally "all other companies that are remaining," ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said.

U.S. military and civilian officials in Kabul described the issue as serious but under control. They said that there appears to have been some miscommunication between the president and the Interior Ministry but that they are confident Karzai will allow their security guards to remain.

"Everyone's pushing back. We think we've got him back in the box," one U.S. military official said of Karzai.

Another Western official in Kabul said Karzai's decree, as written, "would not be something that would be doable for the international community."

"To not be allowed to move ambassadors or their deputies or their staff from one place or another, or not be able to secure project sites, is obviously of critical importance," the official said.

At Tuesday's U.S. Embassy meeting, according to the minutes, Todd said USAID's partners need to take contingency planning seriously and be prepared for a "negative outcome." Representatives of private security companies said they are already having trouble getting visas for their employees, starting new projects or expanding current ones.

When USAID contractors present were asked if they felt comfortable being protected by Afghan soldiers or police, "several partners said no, they would not have confidence and they could not operate in that type of environment," the minutes said.

Tara Lee√, a Washington-based lawyer who represents several U.S. and British private security firms working in Afghanistan, said that she expects Karzai to clarify the issue soon but that in the meantime, her clients have had trouble with visas, bank accounts and weapons being confiscated at checkpoints.

Until Karzai makes his plan official, Lee said, "everybody is kind of waiting and nervous."

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the embassy and its coalition partners are "working urgently with the Afghan government to clarify implementation of this decree so that development and reconstruction efforts are not negatively affected."

Also Wednesday, six NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan, including four in a single blast in southern Afghanistan. Another died in a separate bombing in that part of the country, and the sixth was killed in the east, according to NATO officials. They did not release other details, including the nationalities of the slain soldiers.

Correspondent David Nakamura in Kabul contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company