KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called President Hamid Karzai on Saturday to persuade his government to modify its imminent ban on private security companies, which threatens to shut down or stall billions of dollars in development projects across the nation.
Clinton suggested formulating a joint plan to steadily phase out private security companies without disrupting the work of contractors who employ private guards to protect their workers, projects and facilities, said P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department.
The telephone call was part of intense negotiations that U.S. and other Western diplomats are conducting with Afghan officials this weekend over Karzai's decision to shut down private security contractors by Dec. 17. He claims the private guards are undermining his nation's army and police, and wants Afghan security forces to take on the job of providing protection for the aid workers. Western officials argue that the hand-over must be phased in so projects are not disrupted.
Crowley said Clinton pledged in the phone call to work together with the Afghan government to provide a smooth transition.
Companies running aid projects can't legally operate in Afghanistan without insurance, and the insurers aren't ready to trust local security forces, which are not fully trained, according to a diplomatic official familiar with the talks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said money that donor nations spend to pay private security guards to protect their projects will not be automatically redirected to the Afghan government for the Afghan security forces.
Contractors who are involved in building roads, schools and hundreds of other development projects, have already started winding down programs, saying they will have to stop their work if they can't employ guards to protect their workers and facilities.
"We're not aware that any U.S.-funded development projects have stopped operating, but without clarity our partners are making plans for the possibility they are unable to continue their work here," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Saturday.
Karzai agreed earlier this year to allow private guards to keep working for foreign governments at embassies, other diplomatic outposts and military facilities. But he has refused to extend the exemption.
Private security operators -- some of which are poorly regulated, reckless and effectively operate outside local law -- have become a point of contention between the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO coalition forces and the international community.
Karzai estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 people work for security companies. According to the Pentagon, there are about 26,000 private security contractors working in Afghanistan for 37 different companies -- 17 of them Afghan-owned.
The companies protect everything from development projects and NATO supply convoys to private houses.
The weekend negotiations involve all the top players in the Afghan capital, including U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, NATO's top civilian official Mark Sedwill and the U.N.'s top envoy to Afghanistan, Steffan de Mistura, who plans to meet with Karzai on Sunday. The State Department in Washington was being kept appraised of the discussions.
Sedwill, who strongly supports Karzai's policy to shut down the private security firms, acknowledged that the international community did not properly respond to Karzai's long-standing concerns about the conduct of some of the private security outfits -- many of which are unlicensed and act like private armies.
"We are working with the government to implement the president's decree so that the Afghan security forces can take responsibility for protecting the range of work by the international community here on which the prosperity and stability of Afghanistan depends," Sedwill said in a statement.
Steven O'Connor, a spokesman for Development Alternatives Inc., a Bethesda, Maryland based organization that runs U.S.-funded projects in Afghanistan, said Friday that the group was planning an early shut down of its Local Governance and Community Development Project, which employs more than 800 Afghans in more than 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
He said the company remains hopeful that the decree will be modified, but if the ban remains in its current form, DAI will shut down the project by the end of December. He said DAI had developed contingency plans to wind down all six of its projects in Afghanistan.
The company has suffered violence in the past, including a July 2 suicide bombing at its compound in Kunduz, killing four people.
British aid worker Linda Norgrove, who was kidnapped on Sept. 26 and killed less than two weeks later during a rescue attempt, also worked for the group.