Removing all private security firms from Afghanistan could be difficult

Obama administration officials argue that four-month deadline might be overly aggressive.

It will be "very challenging" to comply with an edict Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued this week to remove all private security contractors from Afghanistan within the next four months, according to Pentagon and State Department officials.

"Obviously that is a very aggressive timeline and one which I think our forces and commanders as well as the State Department and ambassador will be working with the government of Afghanistan to achieve," Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters on Tuesday.

About 20,000 armed security contractors work for Defense, State and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, guarding supply convoys, key personnel, checkpoints and installations. Thousands more work for media outlets, private corporations or nongovernmental organizations.

In the wake of high-profile incidents of violence and questionable behavior, Defense and State have taken steps to improve their management, coordination and oversight of security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Karzai said the companies still operate with impunity and with little oversight and regulation. He also argued the presence of private security contractors undermines the efforts of Afghanistan's security forces. Karzai expects Afghanistan to assume control of all security functions nationwide by 2014.

Whitman noted that while the United States shares a common goal with Karzai to eliminate the need for private security contractors, "we also recognize that Afghanistan presents a daunting security challenge."

According to Defense Department figures, there were 16,733 private security contractors in Afghanistan as of the end of March -- a 415 percent increase from the 3,000 who were in the county 15 months earlier. Many of the contractors are Afghan nationals, who would have options for staying on.

The State Department, which has more than 1,000 private security contractors on its payroll in Afghanistan, also suggested that Karzai's time frame might be overly ambitious.

"We continue to support the Afghan government's intent to properly regulate the activities of private security companies in Afghanistan," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "There are questions of implementation, however."

Toner noted officials have worked aggressively to train the Afghan police and military, but it's unclear when they will be ready for a complete security transition.

"Private security companies are currently filling a gap that allows us to deliver reconstruction and development assistance that, at the end of the day, focuses on improving the lives of the Afghan people," he said.

On Monday, Karzai caught many in the international community off-guard when he issued a decree calling for all private security contractors to disband by Jan. 1, 2011. The order, which cites "horrific and tragic incidents" involving the misuse of weapons by private guards, exempts companies providing security inside the compounds of foreign embassies, international businesses and charitable groups.

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

Security contractors registered with the Afghan government would have the option to sell their weapons and equipment to the police, or remove them from the country, according to the decree. The Afghan government will seize the weapons and equipment of all unlicensed private security contractors.

Afghan nationals would have the option of joining the local police or military, which would absorb the security detail, the order said. Residency permits for individuals working for foreign companies, however, would be terminated, Karzai said.

U.S. officials in Afghanistan are worried Karazai's decision could have serious ramifications for reconstruction efforts. "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," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

Independent observers agree the United States is not in a position to abandon its use of private security contractors in Afghanistan. "It would be extremely difficult," said a professional staffer on the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a congressionally chartered group that has investigated the government's reliance on contract guards. "The departments of Defense, State and USAID would be unable to execute their mission without PSCs."

The Afghan Ministry of Interior has licensed 52 private security firms working in Afghanistan, but many more are operating without a license, Hayden said. A number of recent media reports indicate that U.S. and NATO forces have hired security providers run by Afghan warlords who operate private militias.