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Afghanistan cracks down on contractors

By Ernesto Londoño,

KABUL — Afghan officials have seized millions of dollars worth of armored vehicles and weapons from private security firms in recent weeks, a move that has exacerbated concerns about the government’s plan to replace the hired guns that protect convoys and installations with an unprepared state-run guard force.

The crackdown is being carried out even though the Afghan Public Protection Force failed to meet any of the six benchmarks that were set out for it when President Hamid Karzai formally announced a plan to ban private security firms by March 20. An assessment team led by the NATO military coalition, which is heavily involved in the creation of the Afghan force, concluded in the fall that the guard force is far from ready to take over.

Diplomats, development experts and company executives worry that the abolition of private security contractors within three months could endanger Afghans and foreigners supporting NATO and its allies, halt reconstruction projects and open new channels for corruption.

The transition is happening at a critical time in the Afghanistan war. As U.S. and allied troops have begun to draw down, there are concerns about how Afghan troops will manage increased security responsibilities. The United Nations recorded an average of 1,995 attacks during the first 11 months of this year, a 21 percent increase compared with the same period last year.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, called the transition from private security contractors a “huge task” and acknowledged serious challenges, but he said government officials are committed to meeting the deadline.

“We are working very hard with coalition forces,” he said. “The minister has assured the president we are ready to assume this responsibility.”

Since the ministry began auditing security firms about two months ago, authorities have confiscated nearly 3,200 weapons and at least 35 vehicles, Sediqqi said, describing it as the beginning of an effort that will intensify as the March deadline approaches.

“The companies were given deadlines, and they are giving up all this equipment” to the ministry, he said. “We are very encouraged.”

Sediqqi said the vehicles and weapons are now government property.

“They are being registered properly and will be used for public purpose,” he said.

The government has disbanded 57 security companies. Of the 46 that remain, Sediqqi said, 23 are Afghan-owned and 23 are foreign firms with operations in Afghanistan. The companies provide security to clients ranging from tiny aid organizations to large construction and shipping companies.

Karzai decided last year to disband the companies, saying they fuel corruption and distort the labor market by offering higher wages than the government can pay security forces. The APPF, as the state guard force is known, will be run by the Interior Ministry but will operate independently of the country’s conventional security forces. Taking control of the lucrative private security industry could represent a windfall for the cash-strapped government.

Sediqqi said the government was entitled to seize the firms’ equipment because most companies had imported their vehicles and weapons without following customs regulations.

For years, diplomatic missions and private security firms have complained that importing armored vehicles and weapons into Afghanistan is virtually impossible without paying bribes.

Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer in Kabul who advises security firms, said company executives were taken aback by the crackdown. They had opened their books to the government as a good-faith gesture, she said, in hopes that they could remain involved in the security industry as risk-mitigation consultants under the APPF model.

“A lot of companies are being penalized for trying to transparently run their security companies,” Motley said. The bulk of the equipment being seized, she said, was imported during years when there were “limited laws that dictated how they should operate.”

Since Karzai issued a decree ordering the disbandment of private security companies last year, U.S. military officers and diplomats have been scrambling to create a model that complies with the Afghan government’s vision but does not imperil development. The APPF has a few thousand guards but is expected to grow into a force that could have more than 25,000 on its payroll.

“What they are trying to do is unbelievable,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, an advocacy group that represents security firms in conflict zones. “I think, in private, the recognition is universal, even among people in the Afghan government: All of them privately say this is not going to work the way it’s intended.”

A team of Afghans and Western officials set six goals for the APPF this year. But the team’s latest assessment, issued in September, concluded that the force was meeting none of the benchmarks, according to a Western government official who described the findings on the condition of anonymity because the report has not been publicly released.

A U.N. report to the Security Council noted that the assessment cast doubt about the readiness of the APPF, “particularly in terms of managing large-scale security projects in a fiscally and legally competent manner.”

Col. Daniel McCormick, a U.S. military adviser assigned to the APPF, declined to say whether the assessment team now thinks any of the original goals are being met.

McCormick said he was unaware that the Interior Ministry was confiscating vehicles and weapons from private security firms, noting that the U.S.-led coalition is “not part of that mission.”

Among the entities that have expressed concern about the plan is the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a U.S. government body that promotes security cooperation between the State Department and the private sector, McCormick said.

“The APPF challenge is a great opportunity,” he said. Its establishment, he added, will send a message that “Afghanistan is open for business, has rule of law and can provide security.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement that diplomats have been in close contact with program managers who get funding from the United States “to address the concerns that have been raised.”

A development expert working on a U.S.-funded project in Afghanistan said people in the field are deeply worried about the transition. Some large companies, the expert said, have begun smuggling heavy weaponry and reclassifying staff members who were nominally security officers as development workers.

Still, said the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, most in the development community are holding out hope that the deadline will be extended or the plan modified.

“This is not going to happen, otherwise development will come to a stop,” the expert said.

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