Afghanistan closes 2 private security firms in crackdown, eyes others

Friday, October 12, 2007
An Afghan private security officer guarded a street Thursday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan authorities shut down two private security companies this week and said more than 10 others, some suspected of murder and robbery, would soon be closed, Afghan and Western officials said Thursday. (Rafiq Maqbool ~ Associated Press)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Echoing a growing problem in Iraq, Afghan authorities are cracking down on lucrative but largely unregulated security firms, some of which are suspected of murder.

Two private Afghan security companies were raided and shut down this week, and a dozen or so more contractors -- including some protecting embassies -- would be closed soon, police and Western officials said Thursday.

The government is proposing new rules to tighten control over such firms, including some Western companies, amid concerns they intimidate Afghans, show disrespect to local security forces and don't cooperate with authorities, according to a draft policy document obtained by the AP.

The crackdown echoes efforts by authorities in Iraq to rein in private security contractors often accused of acting with impunity. Blackwater USA guards protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy in Baghdad allegedly killed 17 civilians last month in an incident that enraged Iraqi leaders, who are demanding millions in compensation for victims' families and the removal of Blackwater in six months.

That shooting -- and another this week in which private security contractors killed two women in Baghdad -- focused attention on the regulation of private guards and added to the Bush administration's problems in managing the Iraq war.

Dozens of security companies also operate in Afghanistan, some of them well-known U.S. firms such as Blackwater and Dyncorp, but also many others that may not be known even to Afghan government.

On Thursday authorities closed the Afghan-run security firms Watan and Caps, where 82 illegal weapons were found during the two raids in Kabul, police Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal said.

More companies -- "maybe 13, maybe 14" -- will be closed next week, including some whose employees may have committed murder or robberies, he said.

Security companies that guard Western embassies are among those firms, a Western security official said on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. He would not identify the companies.

Many foreign embassies in Kabul rely on private guards -- typically highly trained former soldiers or police officers -- because Afghan forces don't have the skills, or the trustworthiness, to carry out high-profile protection jobs.

The private security firms have caused resentment among many Afghans, who feel the companies consider themselves above the law.

Despite the attention on the Blackwater incident in Baghdad, the Western security official said the catalyst for the Afghan reforms was the May 2006 anti-foreigner riot in Kabul, which erupted over a wreck involving a U.S. military truck. Some 20 people died in the turmoil, mostly of gunshot wounds.

The Western official would not say whether armed supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance were involved in that bloodshed, but said the incident drew attention to the lack of rules for security firms.

"Allegedly there were 10,000 guards, but in truth the Ministry of Interior had no idea who they were, who they were reporting to," the official said.

The Interior Ministry says 59 Afghan and international security companies are registered, but the Western official said as many as 25 other firms could be operating in the country.

Some of the 59 registered firms are suspected of involvement in criminal activity such as killing and robbery, and the police are investigating those cases, Paktiawal said. He could not provide a breakdown of how many companies are Afghan and how many are foreign.

The Western official said there had been "a few" occasions in which security companies were accused of murder and that one firm "shut down and disappeared" after such an accusation.

The draft rules, which are under discussion by President Hamid Karzai's government, say the main problem is the absence of "checks and balances" over the work of private security companies. That lack "has generated an unfortunate and nearly anarchical PSC market with a long series of security problems and criminal activities," the draft says.

It also warns that operating as a security company can provide cover for a "wide range of militia and criminal groups."

The U.S. military employs about 1,000 private guards in Afghanistan, said Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Defense Department spokesman.

"If you don't have enough military forces, very often that is a way out then, to count on private security companies," Maj. Gen. Bruno Kasdorf, chief of staff with the NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Thursday.

It also emerged Thursday that an American security company, U.S. Protection and Investigations, which does security work for the State Department aid arm USAID, was raided last month in Kabul by the Blackwater security firm.

U.S. Protection and Investigations faces accusations of overcharging USAID by billing for nonexistent employees and vehicles, said an American security official with close ties to the company. The overcharges could run into the millions of dollars, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Eric Dubelier, a lawyer for the Houston-based company, called that "factually incorrect."

"No one has made any allegations that I'm aware of that the company has done anything wrong. There's an inquiry from the government and we're cooperating with the inquiry," Dubelier said in Houston. He declined to say what the inquiry was about.

Lisa Goldfluss, a USAID legal official in Washington, said she couldn't confirm or deny that an investigation was under way.

Afghan police provided security for the raid on the company, according to Paktiawal, and the U.S. official said Blackwater security teams took computers and office files. Two Afghan workers were taken into custody, and Blackwater held American and Canadian citizens at gunpoint, the official said.

Blackwater, which helps provide security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, could not immediately be reached for comment.

In September 2005, Afghan officials said an American supervisor for U.S. Protection and Investigations allegedly shot to death his Afghan interpreter and was flown out of the country the next day.

Paktiawal said the additional firms targeted for closure would be raided by Afghan police next week.

"There are some companies whose work permits have expired, and there are some companies who have illegal weapons with them," he said. "We do not want such private security companies to be active in Afghanistan. It doesn't matter if they are national or international."

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