Guns for Fire

Hamid Karzai wants private contractors out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. Why that's bad for the West -- and for Afghanistan.


On August 17, two days prior to Afghanistan’s Independence Day, President Hamid Karzai issued a decree requiring private security contractors and companies, foreign or Afghan, to cease their operations in four months’ time. As a long-term goal, Karzai’s vision is commendable and it aligns with U.S. interests and aspirations to build Afghanistan’s capacity to provide its own security.

But to end the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan by Dec. 17 of this year, as Karzai wants, the West would have to make an impossible acceleration of its timetable in Afghanistan. The lion’s share of the coalition’s current diplomatic and development programs simply cannot be sustained without their vital support — unless they were staffed entirely with uniformed military personnel, which is surely not what Karzai intends.

If Karzai has his way, embassies and NGOs may continue to deploy private security within their buildings, but their external security will soon have to be handled by the Afghan Interior Ministry. After December 2010, the Afghan state, by way of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), will be fully responsible for the entire country’s security, with the support of U.S. and British troops until they are withdrawn. Qualified Afghan security contractors will be absorbed into the ANA and ANP. All others will have their weapons confiscated. Foreign security contractors will be required to leave the country.

The basic idea behind Karzai’s proclamation makes good sense, at least in theory. As one of Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, put it, private security contractors are a "parallel structure" to the government. Their continued prominence is therefore at odds with the West’s mission to build Afghanistan’s state capacity so that it might one day be able to provide for its own security, rather than requiring the assistance of foreign powers.

The stated aim of America’s Afghan First strategy is to hire local nationals to provide private security, and it has been wildly successful by some measures: at least 90 percent of private security contractors in Afghanistan today are Afghans. But in filling those ranks, the West has had to turn to militia groups headed by regional warlords, many of whom pay off the Taliban to secure their territory. Since guns for hire never pledge enduring allegiance to a particular country, our rented allies today may very well become our enemies tomorrow. These local militias, whose creation the United States has actively encouraged, are also likely to be a destabilizing future presence for the security of the AfPak region. Absorbing them into the Afghan state, as Karzai’s decree proposes, is a way of containing that threat. (However, Karzai just last week also described security contractors as "thieves by day, terrorists by night," so why he would want to absorb such forces into the ANA and ANP is a reasonable question to ask.)

But in the short term, the decree raises a host of unanswered questions. For starters, the United States, often through a convoluted chain of subcontracting, currently pays the salaries of Afghan private security contractors, including those working for ostensibly Afghan companies. Some 22,000 Afghan jobs stand to be directly affected by Karzai’s announcement. Those Afghans working for foreign companies would need to seek new employment, as would some of the Afghans working for domestic companies. If Karzai has a plan for bankrolling the salaries of the
contractors absorbed by the Afghan police or army, he has yet to share it in public.

With respect to the more than 4,400 Western or non-Afghan security contractors in Afghanistan — the ones who may have to leave the country in December — these are often the very people who are currently training the Afghan army and police. Astonishingly, more than half of all reconstruction dollars in Afghanistan to date have gone to training the ANP, yet it remains a work in progress and the chances of completing this work before December are slim. Putting aside the reasonable question of why the Afghan police force is still being trained some nine years after the removal of the Taliban regime, the fact remains that it is ill prepared to oversee domestic security in the country. Yet this is essentially what Karzai is proposing.

If Karzai sticks to his guns, U.S. policies may require a radical redefinition come December 2010. The Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development all depend on private security contractors to plug a gap between their security needs and the level of security that the Afghan state and the U.S. military can provide. Since Karzai is calling for an end to private security contractors operating in Afghanistan but is not requesting additional American troops, the country’s security is likely to become much more precarious. Karzai’s decree essentially amounts to a wholesale rejection of America’s current policies and posture in Afghanistan.

So why is Karzai going down this road? Some accounts have suggested it’s merely an expression of his famously mercurial personality. But that explanation overlooks the fact that in November 2009 he pledged to have contractors expelled within two years. Perhaps in his mind, he’s just keeping a commitment.

Others have emphasized that Karzai has a habit of promising things that he can’t deliver. But this particular promise seems different. Private security contractors more closely touch on issues of sovereignty and honor — as things now stand, after all, they mostly answer to the West, not Karzai. Karzai seems to be serious about taking charge of the war effort: He reportedly told Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday that he wanted a review of Washington’s entire war strategy. The innate desire of peoples to shape their own destinies rather than be shaped by outsiders is a powerful force that should never be underestimated. If Karzai really feels the country’s honor and future are at stake, the West should probably begin preparing to change its own plans.

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