Afghan President Hamid Karzai defends move to disband private security firms

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai on Sunday defended his decision to disband private security firms, saying they were undermining Afghanistan's police and army and contributing to corruption.

Last Monday Karzai ordered Afghan and international security companies to disband by the end of the year, despite U.S. concerns the short deadline may endanger American development projects that private guards protect.

NATO uses private security to guard supply convoys bringing food, water, ammunition and other supplies to military bases throughout the country. Critics have said Afghanistan's own security forces are not ready to assume the burden.

But Karzai told ABC News' "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" the companies undermine the government's effort to recruit more police and soldiers because it can't compete with the private firms in salaries. He also repeated allegations that many companies are contributing to corruption by shaking down transport firms for money, some of which goes to warlords and the Taliban for protection.

Even before Karzai's order last week, U.S. congressional investigators had been looking into allegations that Afghan security firms were extorting as much as $4 million a week from contractors paid with U.S. tax dollars and then funneling the money to warlords and the Taliban to avoid attacks against convoys. Allegations of widespread corruption have also been levied at the Afghan police.

"I am appealing to the U.S. taxpayer not allow their hard-earned money to be wasted on groups that are not only providing lots of inconveniences to the Afghan people, but actually are, God knows, in contact with Mafia-like groups and perhaps also funding militants and insurgents and terrorists through those firms," Karzai said.

The Afghan Interior Ministry has licensed 52 security firms, but some older contracts are still being completed by unlicensed firms, according to the U.S. military. About half of the companies are Afghan-owned.

About 37 companies are working with the U.S. government, totaling about 26,000 armed security contractors. The majority of those work for the military, though some are employed by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the military.

Karzai said security companies were "running a parallel security structure to the Afghan government" as well as harassing Afghan civilians.

"They are wasting billions of dollars of resources and they are definitely an obstruction, an impediment in a most serious matter to the growth of Afghanistan's security institutions, the police and the army," he said.

During the interview, Karzai also promised the two anti-corruption task forces — the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit — would be allowed to conduct corruption probes of high-level government officials regardless of their political connections.

Karzai demanded more control over the work of the two teams, which are mentored by U.S. and British law enforcement officials, after the recent arrest of a top presidential adviser, Mohammad Zia Salehi, for allegedly accepting a car in exchange for help in exerting pressure on Afghan officials to ease off in another corruption case.

The Obama administration sees Salehi's arrest as a litmus test of Karzai's willingness to fight corruption.

Karzai confirmed during the interview he intervened "very, very strongly" because Salehi's civil rights were violated during his arrest.

"This man was taken out of his house in the middle of the night by 30 Kalashnikov-toting masked men in the name of Afghan law enforcement." he said. "This is exactly reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union where people were taken away from their homes by armed people in the name of the state and thrown into obscure prisons in some sort of Kangaroo courts."

Nevertheless, Karzai said the case against Salehi would be allowed to proceed according to Afghan law.

"Corruption should be handled most effectively ... and with a lot of pressure, but it has to be across the board and apolitical and without vested foreign interests," he said.

Karzai also said he was willing to talk peace with Taliban figures who break with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups — a key U.S. condition — and accept the Afghan constitution. He said there had already been "individual contacts with some Taliban elements" but not formal negotiations.

The president acknowledged fears among Afghan women's groups and ethnic minorities that their political, economic and social gains might be eroded under a future peace agreement with the Taliban, which banned women from most jobs and education during their years in power.

Those concerns were heightened last week when Taliban militants in northern Afghanistan stoned a young couple to death for adultery in the first confirmed use of the punishment here since the hard-line Islamist regime was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

Karzai said he was in "deep, deep shock" over the stoning and would ensure that women's representation in peace talks would be "solid and meaningful."

He said the Afghan people must make sure the gains made by women "in political, social and economic walks of life" since the fall of the Taliban were not only protected "but are promoted and advanced further."