By Atia Abawi
KABUL – A crackdown on private security firms in Afghanistan has created a power vacuum in the country’s capital city, with one security contractor saying Afghan forces have become like “kids in a candy store” as they harass and solicit bribes from expatriates and those who protect them.
An SUV burns after angry crowd set it on fire in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, July 30, 2010. Two SUVs were set on fire by angry Afghans after one of the cars was involved in a traffic accident that killed four people, police said. SUVs are often associated with foreigners, but it remained unclear who caused the accident because the occupants fled the scene. (Photos: AP and Getty Images)
“There are no adults to hold them back,” said the contractor, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “There’s no talking to them or they get pushy because they’re only after cash [bribes] to let you go and keep your equipment.”
Earlier this year, President Karzai set a deadline of Dec. 17 for all private security firms to leave Afghanistan. Since then, police checkpoints have been popping up almost daily in neighborhoods where many private security firms protect clients such as foreign embassy employees, journalists and nongovernmental agencies.
The contractor said he and his clients have been stopped on a regular basis by police officers no longer wearing their identification cards, who illegally confiscate licensed cars, licensed weapons, radios and anything else at their personal whim.
“You’re dealing with people who are illiterate,” he said. “There is no point of having the correct paperwork because they can’t read it.” (An estimated 80 percent of the Afghan police force can’t read or write).
Karzai announced the ban on private security firms in August in response to citizens angered by their often heavy-handed tactics.
While the U.S. Embassy and military coalition expected Karzai to back down from this order, he hasn’t. He’s made some revisions, such as exempting embassy guards and those private firms that guard military installations, but he stands by the order that the rest have to go.
“Nothing has been publicly said and the police have taken it upon themselves to make up their own ideas,” the security contractor told us.
Outrage over sense of impunity
Afghan anger over the private contractors is rooted in what they perceive as the impunity with which the contractors operate in the country. An incident at the end of July brought the pent-up anger to the fore.
An armored vehicle from the private security firm DynCorp allegedly sped down the busy airport road in Kabul, swerving in and out of lanes, and eventually hit a vehicle head-on, killing four Afghans. An angry crowd erupted after the traffic accident, throwing rocks and setting fire to two DynCorp vehicles. It was only thanks to the Afghan police that the contractors were escorted safely away from the scene.
After the incident, DynCorp confirmed that its employees were involved in an accident, offered its condolences to those killed or injured and said that an investigation was under way.
The crowd dispersed after the incident, but the anger has not subsided.
“We request that the government close all security companies. They should be disarmed and shut down because they are involved directly and indirectly with our country’s instability,” Hafiz Samadee, an Afghan shopkeeper in the country’s southern city of Kandahar, told us.
Another small business owner in Kandahar, Dr. Farhid Stankzai, echoed those sentiments. “Security companies that were escorting logistic convoys created lots of problems…They interrogated and killed lots of innocent civilians...So we are really happy with the decision to close the companies.”
Trying to implement
Privately, U.S. diplomats were troubled by Karzai’s ban on private security contractors, fearing it would shut down embassies and halt USAID reconstruction projects, according to a recent Washington Post report.
But the U.S. embassy in Kabul issued a statement supporting the move: “The United States, along with our partners in the international community, fully supports effective implementation of Presidential Decree 62 to dissolve private security contractors and transition more control over security to the Afghan Government.”
The U.S. Embassy statement also said it “welcomed” the fact that Afghan government said development organizations would be able to keep their private security through the end of their current contracts.
While Karzai relented a little from his original decree that all private security must go, the ones that are left to serve embassies and other international organizations will have to abide by new rules, however unclear they are at the moment.
According to a new code of conduct recently released by the government, security companies must move their headquarters from inside Kabul to outside of the city and security guards will not be allowed to carry weapons outside of their homes, offices and licensed vehicles.
The Afghan government estimates there are nearly 40,000 armed security guards operating in the country; their goal is to cut that number in half, according to a western diplomat in Kabul.
Many of foreign employees of the security companies – so-called “third country nationals” who hail from places like Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Uganda – were brought in by the security companies to work, but have illegally overstayed their visas. They are now being deported to make way for Afghans who are expected to take their jobs.
As the total number of private security jobs in the country shrinks, Karzai’s hope is that Afghans formerly employed by foreign security companies will be able to join the Afghan military, but there may not be enough work for them.
“The main problem is people are going to be jobless and they will join the Taliban or criminal groups to make ends meet,” the Western private security contractor said. “If private security companies get shut down, the rate of kidnappings will go up the roof, more villas will be attacked and corruption will worsen.”