By HEIDI VOGT, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The push by Afghanistan's president to nationalize legions of private security guards before the end of March is encouraging corruption and jeopardizing multibillion-dollar aid projects, according to companies trying to make the switch.
President Hamid Karzai has railed for years against the large number of guns-for-hire in Afghanistan, saying private security companies skirt the law and risk becoming militias. He ordered them abolished in 2009 and eventually set March 20 of this year as the deadline for everyone except NATO and diplomatic missions to switch to government-provided security.
Afghan officials are rushing to meet the cutoff with the help of NATO advisers. But with fewer than six weeks to go, it's likely that many components will still be missing on March 20. And even once everything falls into place, higher costs and issues of authority over the government guards will remain.
The change imperils billions of dollars of aid flowing into Afghanistan, particularly from the United States. In a country beset by insurgent attacks and suicide bombings, the private development companies that implement most of the U.S. aid agency's programs employ private guards to protect compounds, serve as armed escorts and guard construction sites.
On March 21, approximately 11,000 guards now working for private security firms will become government employees as members of the Afghan Public Protection Force, or APPF. They will still be working in the same place with the same job. Except now they'll answer to the Interior Ministry.
"We don't want to have security gaps. This is really important to our customers and to us," said the head of the APPF, Deputy Minister Jamal Abdul Naser Sidiqi. It will happen, he says, because the presidential order says it has to.
Officially, everyone is optimistic.
"The APPF is now open for business," a U.S. embassy official said, speaking anonymously to discuss private agency contracts.
But many are still worried that the entire plan could fall apart. Development contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development told The Associated Press they were explicitly told not to discuss the changeover with reporters because media attention could endanger the delicate process. Everyone critical of APPF insisted on speaking anonymously for this article.
Last week the chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern that the APPF may not be ready to take over security for aid projects.
Even so, no one expects that there will be a visible problem on March 21.
"The guys who guard our gates today wear a certain baseball hat, and on the 21st of March they'll come wearing a different uniform. It should be pretty seamless," said Bill Haight, head of an infrastructure-building project run by Louis Berger Group and Black and Veach. He said his projects are nearly finished and so he doesn't expect many problems.
But companies with long-running projects are worried. New contracts and operating rules will probably still be in the works when the deadline hits.
The APPF has yet to sign a contract to provide security for any of the approximately 75 companies expected to switch over to government guards in March, according to Noorkhan Haidari, the APPF business manager.
And international firms that are expected to act as middlemen managing the guards are having trouble getting licensed. Though about 20 companies have said they plan to register as so-called Risk Management Companies, or RMCs, only one license has been issued — reportedly after a wait of about two months. Others trying to get licensed say the required documents change every day.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Foreign Ministry has also denied visas to foreign workers for at least three security companies that are trying to get registered as RMCs or are working on one of the exempt contracts, according to a security adviser for a major development contractor. These firms have been told they have to wait for new procedures under the new APPF system. But given that they don't have much time to get everything in line, they're increasingly looking at what bribes they can pay to make it happen, the same person said.