Hardly an Unalloyed Virtue: PMSC in Afghanistan

08/25/2010 06:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent news that President Hamid Karzai has ordered a four-month phase out of all private military and security companies (PMSC) in Afghanistan has occasioned much commentary, but there has been a lack of hard facts. For example, who exactly is working there now and which companies would have to leave?. Press reports stated there were 52 PMSC registered with the Afghanistan Ministry of Interior but gave no details as to who there were.

Burt, as it happens, the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, investigated that very subject. In a report dated June 14, it noted:

The Government of Afghanistan has also stressed the need for prompt adoption of procedures to regulate and monitor the activities of these companies, saying that the lack of rules governing the activities carried out by PMSCs created a culture of impunity dangerous for the stability of the country. Civil society had a negative perception of the large presence of PMSCs, in particular with regard to the difficulty of differentiating the legal army and police from foreign troops, PMSCs or even illegal armed groups.

A comprehensive regulation [more on this below] was adopted by the Council of Ministers in February 2008 and is still in force today. The Regulation led to the licensing of 39 Afghan and foreign companies1 and the registration of their personnel and weapons. The Regulation, if properly implemented, is an important step to ensuring monitoring and accountability of PMSCs.

In a footnote the report notes "The Working Group was informed during its regional consultation with the Asia Group on 26-27 October 2009 that the Government of Afghanistan had recently extended the number of licensed companies to 52, with 27 national and 25 international PMSCs."

According to the report, "It is difficult to estimate with accuracy the number of PMSCs in Afghanistan as there are reportedly some Afghan PMSCs not registered with the MoI. According to the information received, the estimated number of PMSCs operating in the country until early 2008 varied between 60 and 90 companies. In addition to local companies, foreign PMSCs were in the majority registered in the United States and the United Kingdom, with some in Canada, Germany, South Africa and the Netherlands. Third-country nationals are also being recruited by international PMSCs. The number of PMSCs may increase given United States troop surges and NATO operations."

Many commentators have speculated that Karzai's call for phasing out PMSC is primarily a political move to relieve pressure on his administration for various alleged corruption. That may be so, but the UN report provides evidence that PMSC are a legitimate security concern:

The presence and activities of PMSCs in Afghanistan are very much interconnected with the large number of unauthorized armed groups of various kinds on Afghan territory. The Ministry of the Interior (MoI) has estimated that no fewer than 2,500 unauthorized armed groups were operating in those provinces under governmental control, which represent less than half the territory of the country. Many de facto non-State armed groups have used the regularization process for PMSCs to disguise their groupings as private security companies, reinforcing the perception that PMSCs were a threat to stability.

Existing PMSCs -- especially local companies but also some international ones -- became a "reservoir" for adoption and legalization of armed individuals with military skills who in the recent past had belonged to unauthorized military groupings.
In Jalalabad, for example, the Working Group was informed that the Afghan National Police in the province of Nangarhar had counted 500 private security entities operating in the eastern region which were not registered with the MoI. These illegal entities, with a minimum of five men, fall under the definition of illegal armed groups and should be dismantled. By comparison, there were only six PMSCs registered with the MoI operating in the area.

Another example would be this:

The Working Group received information about the involvement of PMSC contractors in robberies, kidnapping, interrogation, torture of detainees and irregular and abusive house inspections. The MoI confirmed cases of excessive use of force.. In one case, local private security contractors are alleged to have shot seven adult males and injured one child in what appear to have been extrajudicial killings. On 27 October 2008, the international military forces (IMF) and Anti-Government elements (AGEs) engaged in an exchange of fire in the Haft Asyab area, Saydabad District, Wardak Province, which killed 11 AGEs and injured 12 others. During the fighting, private security contractors working for the RWA Road and Construction Engineering Company entered Hakim Khail village in the Haft Asyab area and, according to witnesses, entered a house, forced out the adult males inside and shot them one by one. A child who tried to run away was allegedly shot in the back. Other reports state that five people were killed by IMF air strikes during the operation. No information has been provided on whether this incident has been fully investigated and anyone prosecuted.

Considering the fragile state of Afghanistan one can see that having more people with guns is a source of concern, regardless of the intended purpose. Exactly how many PMSC there are and how many guns they have is unknown. The report states:

The exact number of PMSC personnel is difficult to ascertain and the Government was not able to provide the Working Group with statistics. According to academic studies, the estimated number of PMSC personnel varied from 18,000 to 28,000 before the adoption of the Regulation. The Regulation imposed a cap of 500 personnel per registered company, although it seems that was not rigorously enforced, with a number of companies employing a higher number of personnel. This number is likely to increase in the coming months given increased insecurity due to the growing insurgency attacks. The number of PMSCs will also increase to match the deployment of additional military forces as announced by the American President with the new United States strategy for Afghanistan. Already by August 2009, the total number of PMSC personnel contracted by the United States Department of Defense had increased by 19 per cent. At the end of October 2009, the Working Group was informed by the Government of Afghanistan that, with the increase in registered companies from 39 to 52, 24,690 personnel were operating in Afghanistan, of whom 19,928 were nationals and 4,772 international employees.

According to data of the Kabul Police, 35 private security companies possessed 4,968 units of registered weapons of various types in 2008 (registered under the names of 1,431 employees). The police authorities informed the Working Group that private security companies possess no fewer than 44,000 registered and unregistered weapons. A total of 17,000 weapons were confiscated by the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) within the framework of the DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) programme, while another 18,000 were officially registered as belonging to 39 licensed companies.

The Comprehensive Regulation adopted in February 2008 led to the licensing of 39 Afghan and foreign companies and the registration of their personnel and weapons. Of the 39 companies, 18 were Afghan owned and 21 were foreign or international, with 10 registered in the United States, 8 in the United Kingdom and 3 in other countries.

Who are the companies? They are:

Country of origin/ Name of company

Afghan (18) ARGS, Asia Security Group (ASG), Burhan Security Service, Commercial Security Group (Guards Service) CSG, Good Knight Security Services, IDG Security, ISS (also known as SSI) - International Specialized Services, Kabul Balkh Security Services, Khorasan Security, NCL Holdings LLC., PAGE Associates, Pride Security Services, Shield, Siddiqi Security, SOC - Afg, Tundra SCA, WATAN Risk Management, White Eagle Security Services

UK (10) Aegis Defense Services Ltd, ArmorGroup Services, Blue Hackle, Control Risks (CR), Edinburgh International, Global Risk Group, Hart Security, Olive Group, Saladin Security Afghanistan, TOR

US (8) Xe Services/Blackwater USA, DynCorp International, EODT Technologies Inc./GSC, Four Horsemen/ARC, REED Inc., RONCO, Strategic Security Solution International Afghanistan (SSSI), US Protection and Investigations (USPI)

Other (3) Australia: Compass
Canada: GardaWorld (as Kroll)

Interestingly, or perhaps better put, ironically, considering the example and claims of some other PMSC trade associations who love to talk about the high ethical standards they require of their member companies, the report notes:

Following the example of Iraq and the establishment of a Private Security Company Association of Iraq (PSCAI) "to discuss and address matters of mutual interest and concern to the industry conducting operations in Iraq", the main international companies in Afghanistan have been grouped together in a Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA). However, the PSCAA Chairman told the Working Group that PSCAA had not been registered formally as an association or an NGO in accordance with national laws and remained more of an informal club or network of international security companies. Its influence and role have remained limited to preserving the interests of the companies and it has not adopted a code of conduct for the industry and does not monitor the conduct of its members.