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Karzai's "impossible" decree

A push to oust private security firms from Afghanistan puts "fear of god" into foreign forces.

Afghan youths
An Afghan youth flies a kite on the remains of a building during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 16, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai's shock decree banning private security companies in Afghanistan has the international community reeling.

Few can comment with authority on what the decree actually means. But the one word almost everyone uses when discussing the measure is “impossible.”

If implemented, the decree, issued Tuesday, would place severe restrictions on private security companies. It would allow embassies and NGOs to retain their internal security firms, provided they were registered with the Interior Ministry and did not leave the confines of their organization. But all other security would need to be provided by Afghan forces.

According to spokesman Waheed Omar, firms — domestic and international — have a mere four months to disband.

The decree would put a major dent in the operations of contractors, diplomats, even international military forces, who rely on security contractors to guide supply convoys through dangerous areas.

It would also deprive thousands of Afghan workers of much-needed jobs, and cut out financing for powerful if shady figures who reap tens of millions of dollars in security contracts.

Security firms are unlikely to receive much sympathy in the current brouhaha. They are everybody’s favorite whipping boy when it comes to apportioning blame for the chaos and anarchy of recent years.

Afghan security companies were the focus of a major Congressional report issued in June. Entitled “Warlords, Inc.” it detailed the activities of several private companies accused of such unsavory activities as assassinations, conspiring with the insurgency, even funding the Taliban with U.S. money to allow safe passage of goods. The report called for a major overhaul of such firms, and urged that funding be limited until they cleaned up their operations.

International security companies are hardly more popular. Major players like DynCorp and Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, are accused of arrogant, even violent behavior, and are roundly disliked by Afghans.

A recent incident in Kabul stirred public anger when a vehicle belonging to the U.S. Embassy was involved in an accident that left four Afghans dead. The car contained DynCorp contractors, and eyewitnesses insist that they fired on the public when their car was stopped, a claim firmly denied by both DynCorp and the embassy. Demonstrations erupted in the capital, with protesters burning the offending vehicle and shouting “Death to America!” before dispersing.

No matter how unattractive their behavior, however, security firms are quite simply a necessity in today’s Afghanistan.

The Afghan security forces, whose training has lagged far behind schedule and whose progress has been, at best, disappointing, are not ready to provide the kind of environment that would enable international organizations to operate in safety. With a growing insurgency steadily encroaching on the few areas of relative security left in the country, a loss of private security firms would mean a drastic curtailment of activity for most international actors, including diplomats, building contractors and the military.

There have been numerous calls for greater control over security firms, but no one seriously entertained the notion of disbanding them altogether. Now the international community is scrambling to catch up.

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“[Karzai] has put the fear of God into the internationals, who are no doubt having second thoughts about reforming private security if it means that the clean, professional Armor Group mercenaries who guard their compounds will be replaced by slouching, stoned Afghan National Police, or that the U.S. Army will have to deploy its own forces to open up the roads for truck convoys to places like Tirin Kot and Musa Qala,” said Matthieu Aitkins, a freelance journalist who has spent several months in Afghanistan researching private security firms.

“No doubt private security needs to be reformed in Afghanistan, but currently it is too deeply entwined with the functioning of the international forces and the Afghan state for this kind of ‘clean sweep’ to be anything but a gambit,” he said.

But that is exactly what has observers scratching their heads. What kind of game is Karzai playing by issuing a decree that will so obviously be impossible to enforce?