Karzai's "impossible" decree

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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?

The Afghan president has been adopting an increasingly anti-Western stance ever since the badly flawed presidential elections a year ago, where the international community was forced to call foul after blatant fraud was exposed in the media and elsewhere.

Despite a few rapprochements, notably Karzai’s triumphant visit to Washington in May, and July’s international love-fest at the Kabul Conference, the Afghan president seems to be looking more and more towards his near neighbors for support, and trying to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular international presence.

Some have pointed to the fact that Karzai’s animus against private security firms came to the fore following his recent visit to Iran.

“Actually the question should be, why has this issue become so sensitive and why precisely now?” said Kabul-based political analyst Wahid Mojda. “Karzai had a trip to Iran and then suddenly announced that private security firms should be closed.”

One reason for the measure, say experts, may be Karzai’s desire to bring the overly powerful Afghan security firms, and the ragtag militias often associated with them, more firmly under central control.

“Karzai believes that these [private security companies] contribute to the weakness of the government,” said Najib Sharifi, a political analyst and media expert. “In addition, huge amounts of foreign aid go to these entities rather than being spent on Afghan government institutions."

Aitkins agrees.

“By pre-empting the internationals, Karzai will be able to make more of these reforms on his own terms,” he said. “My guess is that he’ll centralize a lot of this security contracting through the Interior Ministry, which will give him greater control over the winners and losers.”

But it is just as likely that Karzai was indulging his well-known penchant for ill-considered outbursts, say some observers.

Read the GlobalPost series "War by other means" — about how the "civilian surge" is struggling to succeed and in some places actually creating instability and inadvertently benefiting the Taliban.

Part 1: Aid as a weapon

Part 2: Arming the militias

Part 3: Guardians of Wardak 

Part 4: The law of unintended consequences

“Karzai is sometimes very emotional and makes decisions which are simply not feasible,” Mojda said. “The implementation of this decree is completely impossible.”

The move may bring Karzai some kudos from his countrymen, who dislike the private armies that often evolve from security firms.

“The government should have done this years ago,” said Ahmad Zia Noori, a second-year law student at Kabul University. “With these private security companies, we pave the way for warlords to re-emerge. In a country like ours, ravaged by war, the presence of too many command centers is a problem in itself.”

But the decree is more likely to remain a PR ploy than an actual measure. The business is much too lucrative to be abandoned entirely.

Many of the private security firms are already closely aligned with the Karzai family — the Asia Security Group is owned and run by a Karzai cousin, according to international contractors working with the outfit. Others belong to scions of powerful figures. The son of Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak is reported to control a significant chunk of the security trade.

“Most of the national security companies operating in Afghanistan belong to Karzai’s family, or to relatives of high-ranking government figures,” said Norulhaq Ulumi, a parliamentarian and retired general. “Karzai’s palace is the source of corruption.”

Many of the details remain to be worked out. But few believe that Karzai’s decree will be enforced in its entirety.

“A lot of what Karzai does, especially this past year, is unrealistic,” said Ulumi. “He can easily make the possible impossible, but he can never make the impossible possible.”

Kabul journalist Jamaluddin Temori contributed to this report.