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[Commentary]

Afghanistan’s Endless Private-Security War

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Charles Glass is a journalist, author, and publisher who has frequently reported from the Middle East. His most recent book is Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation (Penguin). His feature “The Warrior Class: A golden age for the freelance soldier” ($) appears in the April 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine

The week of March 20 was supposed to have been Afghanistan’s first without private-security companies on its soil since the American invasion of 2001. However, a few months ago, the Afghan government delayed for a second time its implementation of Presidential Decree 62, promulgated in August 2010, which called for armed men not under government control to leave by the end of that year. The decree—which covers such notorious foreign contractors as Academi (formerly Xe Services and Blackwater), as well as Afghan ones that are often warlord-run militias branded as businesses—promised an end to the free-for-all that had characterized Afghan security for more than a decade. Lobbying by the American government and its allies persuaded President Hamid Karzai to extend the ostensibly non-negotiable deadline to March 20, however. This date has now passed, and nothing has changed.

The Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), which consists of government policemen paid by private clients, is still waiting to assume responsibility for the security of development projects, military bases, supply convoys, and VIPs. BBC reports that the APPF has only 6,000 armed Afghans ready to take over these duties from the estimated 40,000 private-security men now in the country. Last September, senior Afghan official Ashraf Ghani told me that “the objective of establishing full Afghan control of security” was the government’s top priority. The state, he insisted, should have a monopoly on force in the country in order for it to be considered independent. His confidence that Decree 62 would be implemented was strong enough for him to tell me that, by this April, either APPF paramilitary police would be guarding all American bases or “the American soldiers themselves will not be there.” Instead, the American forces are still there, and the APPF isn’t. Nor is the APPF providing security for UN or USAID field projects.

With the deadline blown, the Afghan government is now granting extensions to Afghan and foreign security firms to remain in the country for up to ninety days. These extensions are renewable. Presidential Decree 62 is already riddled with more holes than a house blasted by a predator drone, with exceptions that allow for private embassy security and for military firms to rebrand themselves as “risk management” companies. The APPF itself has institutionalized these exceptions, by signing at least sixteen contracts with “risk management” businesses for the oversight of APPF guards. This sleight-of-hand does little more than subcontract the work of the APPF to private-security companies.

The Afghan state, already so weak that it cannot enforce building codes and property ownership rights in Kabul, is competing with NATO troops (whose actions it has condemned), the Taliban (which controls large parts of the country), warlords of the former Northern Alliance, and armed security guards from scores of companies that are unlikely to disappear soon. Decree 62, initiated to prove the government’s determination to provide national security, is instead demonstrating its impotence.

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