IWPR, December 16, 2011
Licensed Banditry in Helmand
Armed employees of local security firms accused of robbery and worse
By Gol Ahmad Ehsan
Armed men stopping and robbing travellers on the highways are a recurrent theme in Afghanistan. But when the groups involved are being paid to provide security, there is clearly a problem.
In the southern province of Helmand, people interviewed by IWPR said they were tired of the men working for commercially-run security firms who were making their lives a misery. They will not be delighted to hear that on December 11, President Hamed Karzai – a frequent critic of contracting security out to private companies – scrapped a March 2012 deadline for the firms to close.
Abdol Mohammad was driving from the provincial centre Lashkargah back to his home in Khaneshin district when the vehicle was flagged down not by Afghan police or soldiers, nor even the Taleban, but by the hired staff of a security company.
In broad daylight, they stole his car and robbed his passengers.
“They took their money, and even some people’s clothing,” he said.
Abdol Mohammad filed a complaint at Khaneshin police headquarters, but nothing got done.
Another man told IWPR how his 14-year-old brother was abducted by a security firm a month ago.
“I know which security company has kidnapped my brother, but I’d get killed if I named it,” he said.
His attempts to find out more have run into the ground.
“No one has told me the truth. Some say they’ve killed him. I have informed all the security agencies, but they don’t regard it as their business,” he said.
In August 2010, President Karzai issued instructions that all privately-run security firms were to close down by the end of that year. He described them as thieves in the daytime and terrorists at night, and urged international organisations in Afghanistan not to contract out work to these companies.
Private security guards in Afghanistan prepared the way for an oil tanker in Wardak Province on the dangerous highway connecting Kabul and Kandahar. (Photo: Moises Saman / The New York Times)
He said Afghanistan had an army and a police force, so an additional privatised force totalling 40,000 men and operating outside the government control was completely unnecessary.
So far, 57 have been closed across Afghanistan, including five believed to belong to senior government officials. Over 40 are still in existence, though.
The 2010 deadline got pushed back to March 2012. Now the president has agreed that the firms can continue operating until September 2013.
In Helmand province, chief of police Mohammad Hakim Angar said he was aware of the abuses the private contractors were accused of, and was particularly concerned about Khaneshin and another district, Garmsir.
But despite what interviewees told IWPR about going to the police, Angar said he had not received the sort of complaints he could act on.
“People have complained to us about such individuals, but they haven’t filed any official complaints that would enable us to take formal action. We are trying to curb the activities of individuals who carry weapons illegally, loot people’s property and rob them,” he said.
In Garmsir, local man Sardar Wali rejected the police chief’s claims, saying nothing at all had been done to restrain armed men who seemed to be above the law.
“Either the security officials are being paid by them to keep silent, or they are incapable of moving against them,” he said. “The death of a human being means nothing to these scoundrels from security firms. They know there’s no government to ask them questions.”
The official with overall responsibility for security issues in Helmand, Kamaloddin Sherzai, insisted the authorities did take action when people came to them for help.
“We always identify the individuals [involved] and confiscate their weapons,” he said.
He accused the Afghan-run security firms in Helmand of a familiar list of offences – robbery, plunder and kidnapping.
“They work in breach of their contracts. If they are allowed 50 guards, they recruit more than 100. We sometimes seize weapons over and above their permitted quota, which they were carrying,” Sherzai said.
The director of one private security firm in Helmand, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted none of his men would mistreat civilians.
With a force of 150 armed men and a fleet of over 70 vehicles, this owner was doing good business, ferrying foodstuffs and other supplies to the international troops based in the province.
His only complaint was government officials, whom he accused of stirring up allegations about security firms in order to extract bribes.
“Many officials are taking money from us. We pay them up to 100,000 dollars,” he said. “If we don’t pay, they create propaganda against us and make problems for us.”
Afghan private contractors that provide services to the NATO-led troop contingent have come under particular scrutiny, with allegations elsewhere that firms were giving the Taleban a cut of their earnings in exchange for safe passage for supply convoys.
In Helmand, a security guard with a private firm described a different sort of corruption to IWPR.
“We were escorting fuel tankers for the Americans. Our commander secretly spoke to a tanker driver on the way. They drained the tanker and shifted the fuel into other, private tank trucks. Then they drove the tanker into a ditch and took pictures of it,” said the security guard, who did not want his own or his firm’s name made public. “Then they showed [pictures of] the tanker to the Americans, saying it crashed en route. So they got the value of the tanker and the fuel.”
He concluded, “What people are saying is true – these individuals are capable of anything.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand, Afghanistan.
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