| Ander Nieuws week 44 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |
The Washington Post
October 22, 2010
U.S.-funded development firms are beginning to shut down massive reconstruction projects because the Afghan government has refused to rescind a ban on their use of private security guards, according to U.S. officials and aid workers here.
The decision to start shuttering the projects, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, could have far-reaching effects on the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban, disrupting a central component of the strategy to counter the insurgency at a critical moment in the war. Programs to assist Afghan farmers and improve local government, vital to the overall U.S. effort to stabilize the volatile southern and eastern parts of the country, are among those that will be affected, the officials said.
The consequences of the ban on development firms employing private guards "will be catastrophic," said a U.S. official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They are essential to the counterinsurgency strategy."
Another U.S. official said the ban would affect about $1.5 billion in ongoing reconstruction work. More than 20,000 Afghans will lose jobs in road-building and energy projects, the official said.
The prohibition, enacted by President Hamid Karzai, has emerged as the latest flash point in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, raising new questions about his willingness to cooperate with the international community and potentially complicating crucial year-end assessments of the war effort by the White House and NATO.
The ban, which begins Dec. 17, affects all development firms and nongovernmental organizations, including those funded by other countries and the United Nations. It also applies to private contractors who guard supply convoys for the military bearing food, fuel and other essential supplies, as well as to international banks and other private entities whose services support reconstruction work.
Diplomats and representatives of the companies contend that private security guards are essential to operations in much of the country because of the threat of insurgent attacks and criminal activity. But Afghan officials argue that private security contractors operate with little oversight or accountability and sometimes function as private militias that are beyond the control of the country's police force and army.
Karzai's desire to do away with private security firms has the support in principle of some senior Obama administration officials involved with Afghan policy. "Karzai is right about the problems with private security companies, and it is incumbent upon all of us to find a way to do away with them as rapidly as possible, but without disrupting the assistance that's so critical to the Afghan people," a senior administration official said. The official noted that the U.S. government estimates there are 172 private security companies in Afghanistan, about 120 of which are not registered with the Afghan government.
Most private security companies employed by development firms rely on Afghan guards supervised by foreigners. Some firms are Afghan-owned, while others are international firms.
The Afghan government wants development workers and their projects to be guarded by police officers and soldiers, a goal that diplomats and aid workers say is unrealistic because the local government security forces are corrupt, ill-trained and not numerous enough to do the job. The development firms have also said they would be unable to insure their employees - a key prerequisite for operations in a war zone - if they can't employ private guards.
Aid workers and development executives agreed to discuss the issue because they believe public attention will increase pressure on the Afghan government to reverse its position.
"If we don't have private security, we cannot operate in Afghanistan," said a development executive. "It's not open to negotiation."
U.S. and NATO diplomats have been working furiously to soften the prohibition since it was authorized over the summer. Under pressure from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander here, Karzai's national security council issued an exemption Sunday for military bases, embassies, diplomatic residences and diplomatic convoys.
Diplomats and aid workers initially assumed that the failure to mention development organizations was an oversight that would be corrected. But Karzai on Wednesday said the ban would not be amended. "These companies are closed - that is it," he said, referring to security firms not working for diplomats or the military.
Karzai's chief of staff, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, said in an interview Thursday that the president does not intend to grant an exemption for development firms. "We know some projects may be delayed. We know some projects may close down even," he said. "But it's worth it because the other side [retaining private security contractors] is even more dangerous." He said the decision was made "after a thorough examination" by the Afghan government. "We did not take this decision lightly," he said.
Daudzai said the Afghan government would be open to an extension "of a few months" if development firms and the foreign governments that fund them propose "a good plan" to transfer security responsibilities to the Afghan police and army, perhaps by integrating some of the Afghan private guards into government security ranks. "If the road map is a convincing one, then there is room to negotiate a compromise," he said.
U.S. officials have voiced support for Karzai's overall goal of disbanding private security companies, but they have insisted that several years are needed to complete the transition. "We have publicly committed to the goal of moving away from private security - we just need to find a way to implement it that works for everyone," said a third U.S. official involved in the issue.
Although the ban does not take effect for nearly two months, some development firms have started closing or suspending operations because of the time required to unwind activities in an orderly way. One of them, Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, has begun ceasing work on a program to improve local governance across the country, including in southern and eastern provinces that are the focus of U.S. military activities. DAI has informed the U.S. Agency for International Development that it intends to cancel 330 projects totaling $21 million and not launch $6.2 million more in new activities, according to U.S. officials.
Another large development firm, International Relief and Development of Arlington, is "making the moves to leave," another U.S. official said. The company, which implements agriculture programs worth $431 million, said in a statement that it has not yet begun demobilizing and is working "to seek a mutually satisfactory conclusion to this critical issue."
The bulk of the shutdown will commence Nov. 1, when firms lay off local staff, terminate subcontractors and shut provincial offices, U.S. officials and development firm representatives said. After that point, several officials said, it will be difficult to restart programs without significant delays.
Several Americans involved in the issue said the stakes may become clear to Karzai and other senior Afghan officials only on Dec. 17. They noted that private security contractors guard the power plant that supplies electricity to Kabul. "That's when the lights are going to go out in this city," one of them said.
© 2010 The Washington Post Company
| Ander Nieuws week 44 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |