Afghan Report Revives Concerns About Scrutiny of Private Security Firms
Sunday 23 January 2011
by: Ray Rivera and Sharifullah Sahak, The New York Times News Service | Report
Kabul, Afghanistan - The Afghan government is putting new scrutiny on private security companies, raising concerns among Western officials that President Hamid Karzai may be accelerating efforts to push them out of the country.
A special committee appointed by Mr. Karzai to investigate the companies has found that 18 have committed "major offenses," although that number may have later been lowered, according to an Afghan official who has read the committee's report.
While the offenses cited were less than explosive — there were no charges, for instance, of murder or the inadvertent killing of innocents — some Western officials worry that Mr. Karzai may use them to try to speed the departure of the companies faster than his government is able to replace them with a promised Afghan force.
"If push comes to shove, it could be a very big deal if they went through with the proposal to rid the country of all private security companies," one Western diplomat said. "But we're not sure where we are yet in terms of which companies will be allowed to stay and which will be asked to leave."
At the same time, the government has ordered financial audits on 33 of the 55 private security companies operating in Afghanistan, officials said. This examination, which focuses mainly on whether some companies failed to pay taxes, constitutes a separate track the government could use to put pressure on them.
Mr. Karzai issued a decree in August banning most private security companies in an effort to bring under government control the thousands of private guards who have often been accused of corruption, reckless use of force and in some cases acting as de facto militias.
But NATO, foreign embassies and aid groups that depend on private companies to provide security protested the rule, and companies involved in development projects said they would have to cease their work if they could not protect their employees.
In December, the government backed off, agreeing that private security companies would be gradually phased out as government guards were recruited and trained to take their place.
The special committee's report, issued this month, has revived international concerns.
The committee, created in November, includes representatives from the Afghan National Security Council and the Interior, Finance and Foreign Affairs Ministries, among others.
The 18 companies cited for "major offenses" were not identified by the official who provided information about the committee's report on condition of anonymity.
The accusations against them include the illegal use of weapons, illegal hiring, vehicle offenses and tax evasion, according to the official. Seven other companies were also found to have links to high-ranking Afghan officials and politicians.
While the offenses may not seem heinous for a war zone, the failure to register weapons or the names of employees is a serious issue for a government concerned about the spread of private militias, the proliferation of weapons and shifting loyalties among government forces and those of insurgents and warlords.
Gen. Abdul Ghafar Saidzada, chief of counterterrorism for the Interior Ministry, who was involved in the creation of the report, said that it was still a work in progress and that Mr. Karzai had not yet made any decisions based on it.
A separate list of offending companies compiled by the Interior Ministry has been circulating among Western officials. This list contains 16 companies under the category of "major offenses." Nine are cited for "medium" offenses and 11 for "minor" ones. Details of the offenses were not specified. The existence of this separate list was reported Sunday by The Washington Post.
This list, obtained by The New York Times, cites nearly two-thirds of the private security companies operating in Afghanistan as having committed some offense.
It appears that the list emanated from the special committee's investigation, though it was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in the number of companies cited for different offenses. Some offenses initially listed as major may have been downgraded to lesser categories, one official suggested.
How the list was compiled has also caused concern.
"Everyone I've talked to is quite surprised at the list and concerned about the lack of transparency and clarity around how it was created," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a Virginia-based trade group that represents companies doing business for the American government and has many active members in Afghanistan.
Western officials note that the development of the new government security force, like that of the Afghan Army and police, is far from complete, potentially jeopardizing development projects like roads, schools and Afghan military bases.
Afghan officials appeared conscious of this, noting in an addendum to the list that if the force was not ready to replace security companies "disbanded" as a result of the investigation, those companies should turn over their functions to firms with no offenses.
"We have to find a pragmatic solution to this problem," said Rangin Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser. "Our decision to replace this whole security force through Afghan public security forces, we have to accelerate this, but until we have enough forces we have to be pragmatic."
While private companies may dispute the severity of the offenses, some Afghan officials spoke bluntly about them on Sunday, though without naming specific companies.
"I ask you, why does a private security firm have to use a diplomatic car plaque?" said Mr. Spanta, who rattled off other offenses, including: private companies' use of NATO military vehicles; one company's not registering nearly half of its employees with the government; another company's not registering 444 foreign employees with the Immigration Department; a security firm's registering only two of its 49 armored vehicles; and others' not registering weapons, including heavy machine guns.
"I ask you, why does a private security firm use a dushka that is not registered?" Mr. Spanta said, referring to a Russian-made machine gun.
The financial investigation centers on companies that work for international military and development projects, which are tax exempt, but that also do work for private Afghan companies that are not, said Dr. Ahmad Shah Zmanzai, director of the General Revenue Department at the Finance Ministry.
About half of the 55 licensed security companies are out of compliance, he said, mainly for not paying taxes on the taxable part of their work.
On the political front, the fate of the deal struck Saturday between legislators and Mr. Karzai to convene the new Parliament appeared to be precarious.
After weeks of delays, Mr. Karzai had agreed to reopen Parliament on Wednesday. But disagreement emerged Sunday over Parliament's demand that Mr. Karzai abolish a special court appointed to investigate election fraud, which many legislators consider unconstitutional. Mr. Karzai said he could not abolish the court because he had not created it.
A new draft of the deal under consideration eliminated any mention of the court, saying only that Parliament would abide by the Constitution and the laws.
Alissa J. Rubin and Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting.
The New York Times News Service
This article "Afghan Report Revives Concerns About Scrutiny of Private Security Firms" originally appeared at The New York Times.
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