Echoing a growing problem in Iraq, Afghan authorities have started to crack down on lucrative but largely unregulated security firms, some of which are suspected of murder.These contractors attracted attention during the Afghan presidential campaign in October 2004 when one of President Karzai's DynCorp bodyguards (since replaced by Afghans) slapped Afghanistan's Minister of Transport in the face (a grave insult) when he approached the President during a campaign photo opportunity in Northern Afghanistan. A CIA contractor was convicted of misdemeanor assault for beating to death an Afghan detainee who turned himself in for questioning voluntarily. A contractor for USPI who shot dead his Afghan translator in 2005 was secretly spirited out of the country and never prosecuted. And these are a few of the incidents reported in the international press.
Two private Afghan security companies were raided this week, and at least 10 more contractors - including some protecting embassies - will soon be closed, police and Western officials told The Associated Press.
The government is also proposing new rules to tighten control over such companies _ including some Western contractors _ amid concerns they intimidate Afghans, disrespect local security forces and don't cooperate with authorities, according to a policy draft document obtained by AP.
These incidents are serious enough. But there is an even more serious political issue: private security contractors are corrupting the Afghan police and administration. They have hired, armed, and trained militias that were supposed to be demobilized and disarmed, enabling them to persist and profit as part of the "private sector," awaiting the spark that will set off another civil war.
In my article Saving Afghanistan, published in Foreign Affairs last December, I reported:
One former mujahideen commander, Din Muhammad Jurat, became a general in the Ministry of the Interior and is widely believed -- including by his former mujahideen colleagues -- to be a major figure in organized crime and responsible for the murder of a cabinet minister in February 2002. (He also works with U.S. Protection and Investigations, a Texas-based firm that provides international agencies and construction projects with security guards, many of whom are former fighters from Jurat's militia and current employees at the Ministry of the Interior.)Since that article was published, Afghanistan's erratic Attorney-General, Abdul Jabbar Sabet (himself also accused of corruption), issued an arrest warrant for Jurat and attempted to dissolve his security firm. The result was the beating of Sabet by Jurat's supporters. Jurat, a native of the Panjshir Valley, is a former commander of Ahmad Shah Massoud, while Sabet, a native of Nangarhar in Eastern Afghanistan, was a member of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar's Hizb-i Islami while working for Voice of America Pashto service in the 1980s. Afghans interpreted this incident variously as ethnic politics, factional struggles, government attempts to marginalize the mujahidin, the strength of corrupt mafias, and weakness of the state (or perhaps all of the above).
Word on the street about this week's crackdown is equally complex. As the Afghan "street" now has access to internet and Skype, its rumors travel quickly. Word on the street is that rather than a sincere "crackdown" on private security firms, the government's actions are more similar to its counter-narcotics actions: use of the government by one criminal group to suppress its competitors. The stories circulating involve beneficiaries of US Department of Defense contracts from favored Afghan families and huge payoffs to Afghan officials. I do not know how true these stories are. But I do know that the complete opaqueness of the contracting process makes it impossible to even try to refute them.
When I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 1, 2007, Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) asked about corruption: wasn't corruption a part of the culture in Afghanistan? Was the U.S. imposing alien standards? I explained that, while corruption occurred in Afghanistan as in every society, Afghans believed that the unprecedented level of corruption today was largely due to the foreign presence, not their culture. First of all, Afghans do not believe that the international drug problem is caused by greedy Afghan farmers. They think it is due to the global demand for illicit drugs and a policy regime that disproportionately punishes the weakest and poorest parts of the supply chain. Second, they see, if we do not not, the links among US security contractors, Afghan militias, and corrupt officials. They see the armed groups that destroyed their country remobilized and paid by a politically connected "private sector" subsidized by the U.S. government.
The individuals working for private security contractors are not all evil and corrupt people. Some of them have taken risks for something they believe in, and others, like so many wielding guns on every side of this and other conflicts, are just keeping their heads down while they try to make some money for their families. But the system of privatized security contractors expanded by the Bush administration is seen by Afghans as corrupting their state and society and is undermining support for the international presence. In this post I have not even touched on the role of private contractors in implementing the US counter-narcotics policy and many other subjects. Unfortunately I have not been able to do all the research that this subject requires. I hope that others will soon fill that gap.