KABUL, Afghanistan – Echoing a growing problem in Iraq, Afghan authorities have started to crack down on lucrative but largely unregulated security firms, some of which are suspected of murder.
Two private Afghan security companies were raided this week, and at least 10 more contractors — including some protecting embassies — will soon be closed, police and Western officials told The Associated Press.
The government is also proposing new rules to tighten control over such companies — including some Western contractors — amid concerns they intimidate Afghans, disrespect local security forces and don't cooperate with authorities, according to a policy draft document obtained by AP.
The crackdown echoes efforts by authorities in Iraq to rein in private security contractors often accused of acting with impunity. Blackwater USA guards protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy in Baghdad are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians last month, an incident that enraged the Iraqi government, which is demanding millions of dollars (euros) in compensation for the victims and the removal of Blackwater in six months.
The incident has also focused attention on the rules governing private guards and added to Washington's problems in managing the war in Iraq.
Dozens of security companies also operate in Afghanistan, some of them well-known U.S. firms such as Blackwater and Dyncorps, but also many others who may not be known even to the Afghan government.
Authorities on Tuesday shut down the Afghan-run security companies Watan and Caps, where 82 illegal weapons were found during the two raids in Kabul, police Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal said.
At least 10 more companies will be closed next week, he said, including some whose guards may have committed murder or theft. Security companies that guard Western embassies are among those on that list, a Western security official said on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. He would not identify the companies.
Many foreign embassies here rely on private security guards — typically highly trained ex-military and police — because Afghan forces don't have the skills, or the trustworthiness, to carry out such high-profile protection jobs. But private security firms in Afghanistan sometimes draw the ire of citizens.
The impression that such firms are above the law has deepened local resentment, but the Western official said the catalyst for the reforms were May 2006 anti-foreigner riots in Kabul, sparked when a U.S. military truck lost its brakes and rammed into cars. Some 20 people died in the riots, mostly of gunshot wounds.
The official would not elaborate on whether armed supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance — now active in the provision of security guards in the capital — were involved in the unrest, but said the incident drew attention to the lawlessness in the capital.
"Allegedly there were 10,000 guards, but in truth the Ministry of Interior had no idea who they were, who they were reporting to," the official said.
The official said there have been "a few" occasions where security companies were accused of murder, and that one company "shut down and disappeared" after such an accusation.
The draft Afghan rules, which are under discussion within President Hamid Karzai's government, say that security company cover can disguise a "wide range of militia and criminal groups ... enabled in an environment free of clear guidelines, code of ethics or agreements and administrative corruption."
The U.S. military employs about 1,000 security contractors in Afghanistan, said Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Defense Department spokesman.
"If you don't have enough military forces, very often that is a way out then, to count on private security companies," Maj. Gen. Bruno Kasdorf, chief of staff with the NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Thursday.
It also emerged Thursday that an American security company U.S. Protection and Investigations, which does security work for the U.S. State Department aid arm USAID, was raided last month in Kabul by another security firm, Blackwater.
USPI faces accusations of overcharging USAID by billing for employees and vehicles that did not exist, said an American security official with close ties to the company who wasn't authorized to release the information. The overbilling could run into the millions of dollars, the official said.
USPI, a Houston-based company, didn't respond to requests for comment. USAID officials also declined to comment.
Afghan police provided security for the early September raid, Paktiawal said, then Blackwater security teams took computers and office files, the U.S. official said. Two Afghan USPI employees were taken into custody, he said.
Blackwater held American and Canadian citizens at gunpoint during the raid, said the American official. Blackwater, which helps provide security for the U.S. Embassy, could not immediately be reached for comment.
In September 2005, Afghan officials said an American supervisor for USPI allegedly shot dead his Afghan interpreter and was flown out of the country the next day.
Paktiawal said at least 10 — "maybe 13, maybe 14" — security companies would be targeted for closure in raids police planned to carry out next week.
"There are some companies whose work permits have expired, and there are some companies who have illegal weapons with them," Paktiawal said. "We do not want such private security companies to be active in Afghanistan. It doesn't matter if they are national or international."
The Interior Ministry said 59 Afghan and international security companies have registered with them, although the Western official said as many as 25 other security companies could be operating in the country.
Some of the 59 companies are suspected of involvement in criminal activity such as killing and robbery, and the police were investigating these cases as well, Paktiawal said. He could not provide the breakdown of how many of these companies are Afghan and how many foreign.
The draft government rules seen by the AP say the main problem faced by the government is the absence of "checks and balances" over the work of private security companies, known as PSCs.
"(The) absence of targeted regulation ... in parallel with unstable security environment has generated an unfortunate and nearly anarchical PSC market with a long series of security problems and criminal activities."
Faced with growing Taliban insurgency, "it is a matter of urgency to regulate and monitor the activities of PSCs in a coordinated and precise manner and through a set of clear mechanisms," the draft said.