|Afghanistan's private security industry employs more than 30,00 people [GALLO/GETTY]
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has issued a decreethat may put an end to the enormous and lucrative business of providing private security in his war-torn country.
According to Karzai's decree, the government will dissolve all foreign and domestic security companies by December, making jobless the tens of thousands of locals and foreigners employed in the industry.
Many powerful Afghans have a hand in the private security business, and eliminating their income would almost assuredly upset the balance of power throughout the country, not to mention force foreign diplomatic personnel and other aid organisations to quickly find adequate security in a land rife with danger.
But hired guns, both local and foreign, have also proved to be a headache for Karzai, killing and wounding civilians and exercising prince-like control over supply lines, in the process making the Afghan government appear as a sideshow in the provision of development and stability to its own people.
Karzai's decision was at least in part a response to the dangers of private security companies wielding unchecked power in Afghanistan: The decree mentions the need to tackle corruption and prevent the misuse of weapons and uniforms to prevent “tragic incidents”.
Most recently, in July, private security contractors were thrust into the news when an SUV driven by a DynCorp International team working under a state department contract collided with a car carrying Afghan civilians in Kabul, killing one and injuring three and prompting a crowd of hundreds to protest, throwing rocks and chanting “Death to America".
"It's not about regulating the activities of private security companies, it's about their presence, it's about the way they function in Afghanistan ... all the problems they have created," Waheed Omer, Karzai's spokesman, has said.
30,000 - 40,000 contractors (around half are Afghans)
90 companies recognised by Afghanistan or the UN (20 based in Afghanistan, 57 internationally, 13 unknown)
$20 - 100 billion annual revenues
December deadline for all companies to dissolve
2,500 "unauthorised armed groups" in government-controlled provinces
$500 - 700 monthly pay for Afghan team leader or interpreter
$100 - 200 monthly pay for Afghan guard
Among a startling 31 per cent jump in Afghan civilian casualties over the first half of 2010, the United Nations said it could not attribute 405 deaths and injuries to any party, pro- or anti-government. The independent, Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitor(ARM) - which came up with slightly lower casualty numbers than the UN - estimated that 64 civilians were killed by "criminals" or private security guards in the same time period, with another 32 deaths attributed to unknown assailants.
But Karzai probably wasn’t concerned only with civilian casualties.
Though many firms are owned by or have ties to Karzai’s relatives and other powerful Afghans on a national and provincial level, Karzai and other officials have become increasingly concerned about the firms' unregulated power and have begun referring to them as "states within a state", according to the ARM report.
Another report released by a US congressional committee in Junefound that the enormous, $2.16 billion consortium that runs most of the American military's supply chain in Afghanistan uses as security "warlords, strongmen, commanders, and militia leaders who compete with the Afghan central government for power and authority".
These commanders charge Nato countries thousands of dollars per truck, bringing in millions of dollars per year to support their independent enterprises.
In turn, they may be funding the Taliban through protection payments they hand over to the insurgent movement to guarantee calm along the roads.
One such warlord-cum-security contractor, the Uruzgan-based Matiullah Khan, who was featured in both the US report and a New York Times profile, bears the title chief of provincial highway police even though the highway police were disbanded years ago.
His "Kandak Amniante Uruzgan" militia boasts more than 2,000 armed men, a kind of private army that has conducted operations with US special forces while rebuffing the Afghan government's efforts to control them, according to the congressional report.
President Karzai’s powerful half-brother, the Kandahar politician Ahmed Wali Karzai, has said that Khan has waged successful battles against the Taliban. But others say he also runs his security operations along the main road in Uruzgan province more like a highway robber than a government-approved contractor.
"No one can travel without Matiullah without facing consequences", the chief of a private security company told US congressional investigators. "There is no other way to get there. You have to either pay him or fight him".
According to analysts, private security forces in Afghanistan are so widespread, lucrative and necessary - and Afghan security forces so unprepared - that Karzai’s desire to dissolve them seems nearly impossible.
"These are not marginal parts of the Afghan economy, of the Afghan political landscape", Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told Al Jazeera.
It’s impractical and probably impossible to dissolve all of Afghanistan's private security companies within four months, Clark said.
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Timesthat the dissolution simply cannot be implemented in four months.
"There has to be some sorting out", he said. "Who gets their contracts cancelled, when and in what order, and that provides a lot of leeway for sorting what happens and to whom and when".
Under the decree, foreigners employed as private security contractors in Afghanistan would lose their residency permits, but nationals could apply through the interior ministry for jobs in the Afghan police force.
|Karzai wants Afghan forces to take over all security by 2014 [AFP]
That could boost the collective experience and skills of the force, which Karzai has long wanted to exert sole authority over security in Afghanistan, Aminullah Habibi, a research fellow at the UK Defence Academy, told Al Jazeera.
But at the moment, the Afghan police and army are not ready to assume the jobs of the tens of thousands of contractors, Habibi said.
Other observers in Afghanistan agreed with that sentiment.
“[Karzai] has put the fear of God into [foreigners], 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 US Army will have to deploy its own forces to open up the roads for truck convoys to places like Tirin Kot and Musa Qala,” Matthieu Aitkins, a Kabul-based freelance journalist and fellow at New York University, told the Global Post website.
Aitkins told the website that private security contractors are "too deeply entwined with the functioning of the international forces and the Afghan state" for Karzai's four-month deadline to be taken seriously.
Karzai's move to dissolve all of Afghanistan’s private security companies might also meet resistance from Afghans themselves, as it will deprive anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 nationals of a steady income that sometimes doubles what their countrymen make working for the army or police.
A US defence department report released in May found that the department employed some 16,400 private security contractors, 93 per cent of them Afghan nationals. Only 137 were US citizens, while 960 came from other countries.
According to a 2007 study of private security forcesin Afghanistan by the research institute swisspeace, government security forces earn around $70 a month, while the average Afghan guard working for a private security company earns from $100 to $200 a month and higher ranking employees such as team leaders and interpreters can pull in up to $700 a month.
According to Omer, the government spokesman, more than 50 private security companies employing anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 armed personnel operate in the country.
The US army general in charge of a task force reviewing private security contractors has said there are 26,000 armed personnel working for the US government alone, of whom 19,000 work specifically for the military.
But independent studies and journalists working in Afghanistan suggest the number of unlicensed groups working outside the purview of Afghan or international regulation is likely far higher.
The swisspeace study found that the government had registered only a "fraction" of all the security companies in the country.
Based on information from the Afghan Investment Support Agency, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and the interior ministry, all of which had compiled separate and occasionally contradictory lists, the study identified 90 companies by name and noted that other sources estimated there could be as many as 140 security companies operating in the country.
In July, a report by a UN Human Rights Council working group on private securitycited an Afghan interior ministry estimate that "no fewer than 2,500 unauthorized armed groups" were operating in government-controlled provinces.
Security companies in Afghanistan have also probably long underreported both the size of their staff and the number of weapons they own, the swisspeace report found.
In one case, an interior ministry investigation found that a company called Khawar, which was owned by a brother of General Din Muhammad Jurat, himself an interior ministry official, employed more than 1,000 guards and owned 998 weapons, though the company had registered only 654 personnel and 400 weapons.
|Private security forces in Afghanistan rarely wear identifying clothing [GALLO/GETTY]
Overall, the regulation of weaponry among private guards is lax.
According to the US congressional report, a small army of 600 fighters serving under a man named Commander Ruhullah - the single largest security provider for the US supply chain in Afghanistan - flouts US regulations that forbid the use of any weapon more powerful than an AK-47 by carrying heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Putting themselves further outside the boundaries of official control, many private security contractors do not wear any kind of identifying clothing, and those that do often wear only a company logo on a hat or t-shirt.
Many contractors prefer to wear civilian outfits as a way of blending in and making themselves less of a target, according to the swisspeace report.
The lax regulation and ease with which private security forces exert their power in Afghanistan can create an atmosphere of lawlessness.
Among non-governmental organisations contacted by UN Human Rights Council interviewers, the "vast majority" did not believe the presence of private security guards generated an increased feeling of security in the Afghan population and that, "to the contrary, the large number of armed individuals, vehicles and weapons created a feeling of fear and insecurity".