Karzai gives private security firms a temporary reprieve from order to disband

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 3:49 PM

KABUL - Under intense diplomatic pressure, President Hamid Karzai offered a reprieve Wednesday to private security companies guarding foreign-funded development projects in Afghanistan, heading off at least for the moment the imminent shutdown of billions of dollars' worth of programs.

The decision to extend the deadline by at least two months was met with some relief among foreign diplomats in Kabul, who had voiced concern in recent days that large development firms might withdraw from the country en masse, undercutting a key component of Gen. David H. Petraeus's strategy in the war against the Taliban. If Karzai had not changed his mind, U.S. officials and company representatives said, firms would have soon begun a widespread shutdown.

"We were on the ropes," said one U.S. Agency for International Development official in Kabul. "It would have devastated us."

Some diplomats and development officials, however, said Karzai's decision merely postponed the problem rather than resolving it.

"They've just given themselves another two months to cobble together some sort of compromise," said one official at a development company that works in Afghanistan. "It doesn't solve the fundamental issue and the issue of principle, which is the need to provide the maximum possible security and safety for your employees on the ground."

After initially standing firm on the Dec. 17 deadline to disband private security firms, Karzai has now decided that by Nov. 15, a new committee will prepare a timetable for the disbandment of companies that guard development projects, and that once each organization is given its new dissolution date, it will have 90 days to prepare. He made this change, according to a statement, in recognition of "the importance of maintaining the continuous delivery of critical development projects and programs funded by the international community."

That was the argument being put to Karzai in recent weeks by increasingly agitated foreign diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called the president in search of a compromise. But until Wednesday, the diplomatic pressure appeared only to spur Karzai to further intransigence. Earlier this week, after storming out of a meeting on the issue with Petraeus and others, Karzai lashed out in public, accusing U.S.-funded private security companies of killing people and looting homes and shops.

"They violate the law, they kill people, the people get attacked, and the civilians get killed by these private security companies," he said.

Over the summer, Karzai made a surprise decision calling for the dissolution of private security firms within four months, a deadline that many of those involved called unrealistic. He eventually granted exceptions for embassies, military bases and other diplomatic sites and turned his focus on getting rid of the unlicensed companies that escort NATO supply convoys and whose employees have a reputation as reckless mercenaries.

But the exceptions excluded development firms, which rely on private guards when their workers build roads and schools, carry out agriculture projects and try to improve the Afghan government. Without security, many of those programs would be forced to shut down, and U.S. officials estimated that $2.5 billion in projects and up to 40,000 Afghan jobs were at stake.

The temporary reprieve Karzai issued Wednesday followed two days of intensive negotiations between the Afghan government and U.S. officials.

Both the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy issued statements praising Karzai's goal of eventually disbanding private security companies.

"We fully support effective implementation of Presidential Decree 62, to dissolve private security contractors and transition more control over security to the Afghan Government," U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry said in a statement. "We welcome the government's announcement of a new committee under the ministry of interior to develop an implementation plan for President Karzai's approval."

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