Afghan president issues decree formalizing 4-month deadline to dissolve private security firms

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's president issued a decree Tuesday ordering private security companies to disband by the end of the year, drawing a warning from the United States that the move could delay reconstruction and development assistance programs.

The U.S. and its international partners rely heavily on private security contractors — both Afghan and foreign — to guard supply convoys and protect key installations and personnel.

But the role of security operators has become a point of contention between the government and the international community as complaints have mounted that the firms are poorly regulated, reckless and effectively operate outside local law.

According to the decree, the tens of thousands of security contractors currently working in Afghanistan will have to either join the Afghan police or cease operations within four months.

The decree provides an exception for private security firms working inside compounds used by international groups, including embassies, businesses and non-governmental organizations.

"They will have to stay inside of the organization's compound and will have to be registered with the Interior Ministry," the decree states.

All security outside of these compounds will be provided by Afghan security forces, who will also protect supply convoys for international troops, the decree says. The U.S. and its international partners are clearly concerned that the Afghan security force is not ready to take on the task.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States supported the Afghan government's intent "to properly regulate the activities of private security companies in Afghanistan" but added that there "are questions of implementation."

"We are concerned that any quick action to remove private security companies may have unintended consequences, including the possible delay of U.S. reconstruction and development assistance efforts," she said. "Private security companies are currently filling a gap to allow us to deliver reconstruction and development assistance that, at the end of the day, focuses on improving the lives of the Afghan people."

The four-month deadline was first announced Monday by Karzai's spokesman but no details were available until the decree was issued.

Officials in Washington had questioned whether a four-month deadline was realistic.

"We have a common goal in eliminating the need for private security companies," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday in Washington. But he added that U.S. officials want to do it "in a deliberate way through a process that recognizes the scale and scope of the challenge."

A task force set up in June to better regulate and oversee private security operations is only now just getting to its full strength of some two dozen staff, said a senior defense official who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The group, called Task Force Spotlight, has scheduled a forum at the end of this month for heads of security companies to lay out procedures for the firms to follow.

"This is an undertaking that requires a deliberate process," Maj. Joel Harper, a NATO spokesman said. He said the transition should follow "a timeline that recognizes the scale and scope of this issue will take time to fully implement."

Karzai pledged in his inauguration speech in November to shutter both foreign and domestic security contractors by November 2011. This decree significantly speeds up the deadline.

The government has estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 armed security contractors are working in the country.

The Afghan Interior Ministry has 52 security firms licensed, 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.

Any security contractor currently registered with the government will have the option to sell their weapons and equipment to the police or take them outside of the country, according to the decree. Any unlicensed contractor will have their weapons and equipment seized.

Also Tuesday, officials said bomb attacks killed three U.S. service members and three Afghan civilians.

Two of the Americans were killed in a bombing in the east, while the third was killed in the west, NATO said. It did not provide details on where or how they were attacked.

Meanwhile, a bomb hidden on a motorbike killed two Afghan street cleaners early Tuesday in eastern Ghazni province. The bomb, which was remote-detonated, appeared to be targeting a police truck that was driving down the street in Ghazni city, said Ismail Jahangir, a provincial government spokesman. The explosion also wounded one police officer and four other civilians, he said.

In Kandahar province in the south, a tribal elder and district council member was killed early Tuesday by a bomb planted in his office in the border town of Spin Boldak, according to the border police chief for the area, Gen. Razaq Khan.

The bomb had been hidden under a cushion that exploded when the elder, Zekirya, leaned against the it, Khan said.

Also, NATO reported that its forces killed a Taliban operative named Bilal who had ties to the network involved in last month's killing of two U.S. sailors in central Afghanistan. The alliance said it is unknown what role, if any, he played in their deaths.

Bilal was killed Monday in Logar province's Charkh district, NATO said.

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Rahim Faiez and Mirwais Khan contributed to this report.