Afghanistan’s Mercenaries

Two employees of the organization formerly known as Blackwater were just convicted of manslaughter in the 2009 shooting deaths of two unarmed Afghan civilians. The pair had been drinking, were off their base without permission, and fired on an approaching car without obvious provocation.

This will earn them up to eight years in prison. There is no recourse, obviously, for the dead Afghans.

The case has revived some of the bitter dispute over Private Security Contractors (PSCs) that has been raging, with various degrees of intensity, since last August, when President Hamid Karzai made his surprise announcement that all PSCs would have to disband within four months. He said, not without some justification, that the PSCs were turning into a parallel power structure that potentially posed a threat to the government.

Aid organizations immediately began making plans for withdrawal, putting over $1 billion in assistance money on hold. Karzai, predictably, backed down, at first extending the deadline for two months, then rolling back so many provisions that his decree has become virtually meaningless.

Like many foreigners in Afghanistan, I am torn on the question. I am no fan of PSCs, and my status as a journalist means that I am blessedly free of most of the restrictions that plague many of my friends. But still, for large organizations some security is indispensible in this extremely volatile country, and there is as yet no clear alternative to the wild and wacky PSCs.

Of course not all security companies have the fearsome reputation of Blackwater.

Some are worse.

Take Armorgroup, which provides Nepalese Gurkhas to guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Two years ago the company was involved in a huge sex-and-booze scandal that almost, but not quite, got them dumped from the Embassy rolls. As of my last visit, about a month ago, Armorgroup was still firmly in place.

A few years ago I ran into a bunch of contractors in a local restaurant. They did not advertise the fact that they were armed, but their jackets were quite obviously lopsided.

They were Americans, working for an Afghan security firm that belongs to a relative of the Afghan president. Most PSCs, even the Afghan-owned ones, have internationals in supervisory positions.

“We guard some very important people,” smirked one of the contractors, who was obviously on his second bottle of wine. “And nobody can touch us.”

These guys were seriously unstable in addition to dangerously inebriated. I was not surprised to hear that they had been involved in a shooting incident on their way home – they just discharged their weapons randomly as they drove down the street. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

These are the men who are supposed to keep us safe. When they are not creating mayhem, what they actually do is prevent most embassy workers, UN diplomats, and international consultants from being able to experience Afghanistan at all.

“If I go out to dinner I have to have a two-car convoy and four CPs (close protection guards),” sighed one staffer at an international organization. “It’s ridiculous.”

One of his colleagues complained that he never got to travel, because “If I go to Herat it will cost about $20,000 in security arrangements just for me.”

A friend of mine works for a U.S. non-governmental organization, or NGO, and has to keep a tracking device with her at all times.

“I feel like a parolee,” she grumbled at dinner one evening.

All of this is in Kabul, where, despite recent suicide attacks, the situation is relatively calm. Still, diplomats and contractors are not allowed to walk on the streets or go to private homes, and can only eat out at a few specific restaurants.

PSCs also eat up a lot of money. U.S. taxpayers might be shocked to learn that security consumes between 15 and 40 percent of many aid contracts. Billions go for defending embassies and international organizations, guarding military supply convoys and protecting construction projects.

I’m sure that many people would be happy to see the backs of the PSCs, but I don’t know what the alternative is. There have been just enough incidents at international organizations to keep everybody on edge.

There have been riots targeting foreign organizations in Kabul, as well as attacks on guesthouses, hotels, and stores that cater to foreigners. Non-governmental organizations have been hit in Kunduz, Helmand, Kandahar, and elsewhere. Foreign construction workers have been kidnapped and, in some cases, killed. Supply convoys have been pillaged.

As witnessed by a recent rash of suicide bombings in Kabul and jalalabad, the situation, far from improving, is actually getting worse. Going without any kind of protection is just not an option.

Karzai has decreed that foreign organizations must use Afghan police to ensure their security. This is just not going to work.

Various U.S. entities have tried for years to get the Afghan National Police up to speed, with checkered results. The fact is, as study after study has shown, that many Afghans who go into policing are illiterate, corrupt, on drugs or in league with the insurgents. I myself have seen some pretty suspicious characters gain entrance to a provincial governor’s compound by handing over a piece of hash.

Local Afghan guards are not much better.

Just a few weeks ago a popular restaurant in downtown Kabul had to be evacuated when the Afghan guards got into a shooting match – with each other -- outside.

So what’s your pleasure: rowdy, inebriated, gun-waving Yanks, or venal, stoned, gun-waving Afghans?

It’s not much of a choice.