International view: Lack of oversight blurs line between criminals and security personnel

KABUL, Afghanistan -- If there is one thing Afghanistan has no shortage of, it's heavily armed men ready to go work for the large numbers of private security firms that have sprung up across the country offering protection to private firms, organ...

KABUL, Afghanistan -- If there is one thing Afghanistan has no shortage of, it's heavily armed men ready to go work for the large numbers of private security firms that have sprung up across the country offering protection to private firms, organizations or individuals.

And the continued level of violence throughout the country has created a ready market for their services.

But according to the Afghan government, many of these firms, often unlicensed and unregulated, are guilty of some of the very crimes their clients hired them to protect them from, including armed robbery, kidnapping and murder.

"Over the past few months we have conducted a review and have concluded that many of the armed robberies and murders have been carried out by members of these firms," said Zmarai Bashiri, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "The illegal use and sale of weapons is also common among these companies."

According to Bashiri, there are 60 private security companies in the country, employing between 18,000 and 25,000 men. The majority of these companies are based in Kabul.


The ministry already has shut down 10 private security firms and has conducted raids on several more in recent days.

Many of these firms appear to be run by former militia commanders who ran roughshod over the country during the 1990s. Despite numerous disarmament programs, many of these commanders retain large caches of weapons, along with loyal followers.

Now they are morphing into highly profitable security companies.

Mohammad Nasir, a resident of Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan province, said that a former regional strongman is now "masquerading" as the head of a security firm.

"The commander has gathered all of his men and given them new uniforms," Nasir said. "They may be guarding [non-government organizations], but the commander still uses them to demonstrate his power. People still see him as a commander; he is still armed, and he can do anything he wants."

These security companies are increasing the level of insecurity in the area, he said.

"When people on the street see this company's weapons and special vehicles, they feel frightened," Nasir said. "They do not have good memories of these commanders during the time when they ruled the streets."

In fact, many Afghans can't tell the difference between members of these private firms and members of the Afghan army or NATO-led troops who operate in the country.


"Afghans do not know who the security companies are and what they are doing in their country," said Susanne Schmeidl, co-author of a study on private security companies for Swisspeace, a research organization. "Many Afghans are not able to distinguish the private security sector from the international armed forces, or from their own Afghan National Police and Afghan army, and general confusion prevails."

The Interior Ministry's Bashiri concedes that such security firms are spreading chaos and making the security situation in the country worse.

"They have proved a headache for us," he said. "We will close them all."

That may be easier said than done, however, in part because of the high demand for such protective services.

Many international organizations do not feel comfortable operating in the country without armed protection.

"The police cannot ensure the security of the government, the cities, or the highways, let alone the thousands of NGOs operating in Afghanistan," said an official from a Chinese company building roads in Faryab province who asked that his name not be used. "We have no guarantee that anyone will be able to protect us if the government shuts down our security firm."

The firms also argue that they are providing a vital service.

Amir Mohammad, an official with RONCO, a U.S.-based company that conducts de-mining operations in Afghanistan as well as providing security services, said his company is legitimately operating in Afghanistan and opposes the Interior Ministry's plan to shut down other companies.


"This is a mistake by the Interior Ministry," he said. "Thousands of people are employed by these firms, and they could end up on the street. Foreign companies cannot rely on the Afghan [state] security agencies, so if the private firms are closed, no foreigner will invest in Afghanistan."

Bashiri insists that the country's police will provide security cover once the private security firms are closed.

"We will provide our own forces to ensure security when the firms are shut down," he said. "Charity organizations and business entities will be safe and they won't have any complaints."

But Mohammad Fareed Hakimi, a political affairs analyst in northern Afghanistan, points to the deteriorating situation across the country and said he doubts that the Interior Ministry is up to the task of managing the situation.

"The government has closed these companies, but how can it fill the gap?" he said. "They cannot increase the number of police to what is required. If the Interior Ministry now has to guard banks and NGOs, the security gap will get even bigger."

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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