Be Careful What You Ask For

10/24/2010 11:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

Remember those comparatively long ago, rather naïve, days when former Senator Hillary Clinton was running for President and cosponsored legislation calling for the Secretary of State to ban the use of private contractors like Blackwater from guarding State Department employees?

One wonders whether Secretary of State thinks of those days now that she is facing an increasingly serious situation concerning the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan; thanks to President Hamid Karzai who back on August 7 during his visit to the Civil Service Institute in Kabul announced that he would ban both national and international Private Security Companies (PSCs) operating in Afghanistan, which is supposed to start in December.

President Karzai argued that PSCs have created a parallel security force which competes with the Afghan Security Forces (ASFs). And PSCs are, at times, a cause of instability in Afghanistan as well. Actually, as I have noted previously, he has a point there. And the Senate Armed Services Committee report reinforces that view. Viewed in the long term U.S. officials praise Mr. Karzai's plan because diplomats say they perpetuate the country's entrenched militia culture.

Thus, on August 17, President Karzai issued an eight article decree disbanding all PSCs operating in Afghanistan within the next four months. This step was taken as part of the President's plan to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

However, it seems that the four month deadline for closure of PSCs is impractical, to put it mildly, since the necessary procedures for transferring responsibilities from PSCs to the Afghan security forces, in addition to ending contracts between international organizations and PSCs would take more than four months. Many think that at the least the Afghan government should dissolve PSCs gradually instead of speedily.

And now that we are moving ever closer to December 17, when the ban is expected to take effect, President's Karzai's decree is producing significant consequences.

Last Friday American and European officials in Afghanistan warned that contractors handling hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of projects to build roads, schools and networks for electricity and irrigation were planning to sharply limit or halt their work here if the Afghan government moves ahead with plans to enforce the PSC ban,

Simply put, without protection, many, if not most reconstruction companies cannot function in Afghanistan because their workers, whether foreigners or Afghans associated with foreigners, are targets for insurgents. This month a Scottish aid worker, Linda Norgrove, was kidnapped by the Taliban and later killed in a botched American rescue attempt.

The company she worked with, Development Alternatives Inc., has told the United States Agency for International Development that it will have to cancel 330 projects worth $21 million and not start several million dollars in new projects, according to a spokesman.

On October 21 the Washington Post reported that U.S.-funded development firms are beginning to shut down massive reconstruction projects because the Afghan government has refused to rescind the ban. One U.S. official said the ban would affect about $1.5 billion in ongoing reconstruction work. More than 20,000 Afghans will lose jobs in road-building and energy projects alone.

So much for winning the hearts and minds of the people! Good luck with implementing your counterinsurgency policy Gen. Petraeus.

It may still be possible to work out a deal, at least for the short term. On October 14 the Washington Post reported that the United States and its NATO allies, worried about how the Afghan government's ban on PSC might affect their operations, have asked President Hamid Karzai to sign a letter allowing such companies to continue protecting the foreign aid community.

The United States and its NATO allies, worried about how the Afghan government's ban on private security companies might affect their operations, have asked President Hamid Karzai to sign a letter allowing such companies to continue protecting the foreign aid community, according to Western officials in Kabul.

On October 17 CNN reported that the Afghan government clarified the exceptions to a PSC ban, stating that those firms offering protection to embassies and foreign diplomats will be allowed to continue to operate. Sunday's announcement clarified that private security firms that have the responsibility of guarding the interior of embassies, escorting foreign diplomats, protecting diplomatic accommodations and protecting international military bases and weapons storage, will be allowed to continue their work.

Yesterday the AP reported that Secretary Clinton called President Karzai on Saturday to try to persuade his government to modify its PSC ban. Clinton suggested formulating a joint plan to steadily phase out private security companies without disrupting the work of contractors who employ private guards to protect their workers, projects, and facilities,

The call was part of intense negotiations that U.S. and other Western diplomats were conducting with Afghan officials this weekend.

Also, Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer said earlier this month that the ban would not immediately affect companies dealing with the training of national security forces or guards operating inside buildings to provide protection.

Will Karzai blink? Will the U.S. cut him a better deal? Stay tuned.