KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree Tuesday ordering private security companies to cease operations in the country within four months — a decision that could leave Canada’s thin forces further stretched.
According to the decree, the tens of thousands of security contractors currently working in Afghanistan will have to either join the Afghan police force or cease operations by the deadline.
But a spokesman for an international security company that provides guards for both Canadian and U.S. bases in Afghanistan says such a rapid withdrawal — or even any withdrawal at all — will be difficult, if not impossible for the coalition.
“It’s not possible to remove a lot of the security companies that are attached to government contracts right now, especially in a few months,” said the spokesman, who did not want himself or his company identified out of fear of reprisal.
Private security personnel stand guard at the gates of many remote coalition military bases in Kandahar province and throughout Afghanistan. There are up to 40,000 such private guards in the country, protecting military convoys, Afghan and international government workers, aid agency employees and military installations.
Canada has employed up to five private security companies for sentry work at its operating bases in Kandahar. The companies, including at least two based in Canada, hire Afghans as guards.
“The whole idea of bringing in private security companies was so these soldiers can go out and do what they’re supposed to be doing instead of standing in a tower or watching a checkpoint,” said the security company spokesman.
“If you get rid of them, they have to be replaced by soldiers doing work now in the field.”
Ottawa signed an international protocol last year governing the use of private security companies in countries like Afghanistan, and the United States adopted its own legislation following the September 2007 killings of 17 Iraqi civilians by employees of the private security firm Blackwater — now called Xe and one of the firms operating in Afghanistan.
A NATO task force was set up in June to tighten regulation and oversight but a spokesman for Karzai said Monday that greater regulation would not solve the problem.
Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul: “It’s not about regulating the activities of the private security companies, it’s about their presence and it’s about the way they function in Afghanistan.”
“And it’s about the way they have developed into alternative forces. The security companies have to go,” Omar said.
Karzai’s order does provide an exception for private security firms working inside compounds used by international groups, including embassies, businesses and non-governmental organizations.
But security outside of these compounds will have to be provided by Afghan security forces, as will all security for supply convoys for international troops.
Even with the upsurge in American troops in Afghanistan, which will see 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground this year, the coalition struggles to maintain the presence needed to keep Taliban insurgents at bay, particularly in the rugged terrain of Kandahar province.
Having to replace private security contractors with soldiers will take soldiers out of the field, said the security company spokesman.
The Canadian Forces had no immediate comment, but officials in Washington questioned whether a four-month deadline is realistic.
“We have a common goal in eliminating the need for private security companies and transitioning” to a point where they will be under Afghan government control, U.S. Defence Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington. But, he said, U.S. officials want to do it “in a deliberate way through a process that recognizes the scale and scope of the challenge.”
Private security firms are blamed for poaching the most promising Afghan soldiers and police, and some critics say they are little more than armed mercenaries whose unprofessional or even illegal activities go unchecked.
On Aug. 9, 2008, Master Cpl. Josh Roberts, an infantryman based in Shilo, Mba., died following a confused firefight involving coalition forces, insurgents and security personnel from a civilian convoy in Zhari district near Kandahar city.
The incident was initially blamed on private security guards. A military police investigation concluded Roberts died from a Taliban bullet, but his family has questioned that conclusion.
The Afghan government began a clamp down on the unregulated private security industry earlier this year, putting in place a government licensing scheme that saw the number of companies legally operating in the central Asian nation drop from more than 100 to about 50.
The private security company official said some private guards are, indeed, responsible for illegal activity, including paying off Taliban for safe passage.
“There’s definitely good companies and bad companies,” he said.
But he said they also take the blame from a government unable to exercise control or demonstrate security.
As for poaching from Afghan security forces, he said the absence of private security payrolls is no guarantee those men will join the low-paying ranks of the oft-targeted Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police. In fact, the Taliban pay more than the Afghan forces, he said.
“It will remove soldiers from doing their jobs and it may increase the Taliban.”