Potential compromise offered on Afghan private security ban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to back down on his pledge to disband all private security contractors operating in the country, but signaled during a weekend meeting that he could be open to a potential compromise.

Karzai told foreign representatives, including Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to provide the Afghan government with a list of major projects that need protection, along with their security requirements, so that "appropriate measures" could be taken. It was not immediately clear if those measures would include an exemption for providing private security, and if so, how such a decision would be made.

In mid-August, Karzai issued an order to remove all private security contractors from Afghanistan by Dec. 17, citing incidents of violence and questionable behavior by foreign guards. Afghanistan's police and security forces -- many of whom have been described as poorly trained and corrupt -- would provide protection. Security firms working at foreign embassies and military bases would be exempt from removal.

U.S. officials said they share Karzai's goal, but argued his time frame is overly ambitious and could disrupt ongoing development projects.

The Washington Post reported last week that U.S.-backed development firms have begun shutting down or suspending multimillion-dollar projects because of the ban.

"We don't think it's had an impact at this time, and we certainly do not want to see development projects that are important to Afghanistan's future affected by this decree," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said on Friday.

Many firms working for the U.S. Agency for International Development already have submitted contingency plans outlining how they will to respond to the order, according to Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade association with member companies operating in Afghanistan.

"Virtually all development projects require security," he said. "Without security there is no development."

Soloway said the challenges associated with security cannot be solved by examining each project individually and deciding if it is worthy of an exemption. Most private security firms are staffed by Afghan guards.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Karzai on Saturday and suggested a deadline extension that would allow Afghanistan to replace private security firms gradually while still managing the impact on existing operations.

"The issue is not the decree and its objective," Crowley said. "The issue is how you move along a timeline and how much time it will take to move from where we are to where the Afghan government wants to be."

Nonetheless, Karzai said he was not willing to consider extending the deadline, noting private companies had constituted "parallel structures" to those of the government in delivering security and protection services.

"Five years ago, I raised the issue with our international friends who said [it] was impossible then and threatened to close down reconstruction projects," Karzai said in a statement. "Two years later, I again discussed the issue and asked the international community for cooperation. They, however, asked for two more years. Now, the government of Afghanistan is decisive to disband the private security companies and therefore ask our international partners for practical and sincere cooperation."

To many nongovernmental organizations, the primary concern is a lack of clarity about how to proceed. For example, developmental organizations must provide insurance to protect their employees in Afghanistan. But, it's unclear if coverage would be based on the protection of Afghanistan's still "embryonic security force," Soloway said.

Roughly 20,000 armed security contractors work for Defense, State and USAID in Afghanistan, guarding supply convoys, key personnel, checkpoints and installations. Thousands more work for media outlets, private corporations or NGOs.

Regardless of how Karzai proceeds, contractors insist he must make a final decision soon, as it could take several weeks to close down development projects.

"We are at the most critical phase and clarity is essential," Soloway said. "We do not have a lot of time."

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