By Joshua Partlow and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 6:36 PM
KABUL - The Afghan government has accused several prominent private security companies, including some that work with the U.S. government, of committing "major offenses," a move that U.S. officials fear could hasten their departure from the country.
A list compiled by Afghan officials cites 16 companies, including several American and British firms, for unspecified serious violations and seven others for having links to high-ranking Afghan officials, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.
A decision to ban the major violators and those that have relationships with senior Afghan officials would affect firms that provide about 800 guards for the U.S. Agency for International Development projects and about 3,000 who work on military construction projects for the coalition, said a senior U.S. official.
"We're wringing our hands over this," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We're waiting to hear which companies will get disbandment notices and when they will have to disband."
Among those listed as major offenders are Triple Canopy, based in Reston; Washington-based Blue Hackle; and the British firm G4S, the parent company of ArmorGroup North America, which provides security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Also listed were the British companies Global Strategies Group, which guards the Kabul airport, as well as Control Risks and Aegis.
The list included nine firms deemed "medium" offenders, 11 with "minor" offenses and nine, including Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, with no offenses detected.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to approve the list or indicate whether these companies face expulsion. A senior Afghan official said "no decision has been made," and suggested that many of the firms were on the list for tax evasion. A NATO official said one of the companies, the British firm G4S, owes the Afghan government $8 million in taxes. The company declined to comment.
The development has escalated the battle over the fate of private security companies in Afghanistan. For the past six months, Karzai has sought to push out the firms and replace them with government guards. U.S. officials and other foreign diplomats, who generally support Karzai's intentions, have tried to negotiate concessions to keep private guards at their embassies and military bases, as well as guard foreign-funded development projects, including roads and power plants.
U.S. officials believed that they had reached a compromise in December that would protect key operations and give the companies more time before they would have to depart, but the list has raised new concerns that the timeline has accelerated.
"We thought it was pretty much on ice. All of a sudden, it isn't anymore," the senior U.S. official said.
USAID has put several new programs on hold while it waits for a resolution to the issue. An initiative worth hundreds of millions of dollars to support the miliary's counterinsurgency operations, called Stability in Key Areas, was pulled back from the bidding process, in part because of uncertainty over private security companies.
"It is not a stretch to suggest that unless the U.S. government and the Afghan government can reach a reasonable accommodation on this issue, much if not all of the U.S. investment in Afghan development could be placed at risk," said Stan Soloway, president of Professional Services Council, which represents dozens of contractors in Afghanistan.
The list does not explain the violations or say how the Afghan committee arrived at their conclusions. NATO officials have complained about lack of transparency in the process and questioned whether other Afghan priorities, such as collecting more taxes from foreigners, are playing into which firms were targeted.
An executive with a development firm that works for USAID in Afghanistan said officials have expressed concern to its implementing partners that there are "some real problems with the way the list was assembled."
"The lack of transparency makes it very difficult to operate effectively: The rules change every day depending on which department you are talking to," said a second executive with one of the security firms, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We've heard of companies being pulled up on everything from taxes to vehicle registrations to visas."
Several of the companies could not be reached or declined to comment.
Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry told Karzai that new NATO development projects could require an additional 25,000 guards, according to Afghan officials. This would be on top of the 27,500 private guards currently in the country, a total that alarmed the Afghan government.
Later, Karzai approved a plan that would require all new foreign development projects to employ government security guards rather than private security guards and instructed the Interior Ministry to work out the details, Afghan officials said.
This has troubled U.S. officials, who noted that there is no way the new government force, known as the Afghan Public Protection Force, can be ready in time.
To staff the new public protection force, the first priority will go to those who have registered with the Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration program, which started in 2003 to disband the many militias in Afghanistan, said Syed Abdul Ghafar Sayidzada, a senior Afghan police official. Afghan officials believe they could use these men and their weapons, as well as incorporate employees from defunct private security firms.
Afghan officials say they understand the need to protect development projects. But they believe it is crucial to build up the government force or they will never wean themselves off mercenaries.
"We must strengthen first the Afghan institutions. If not, private security companies will simply be poison for the state," the official said.
Chandrasekaran reported from Washington.