KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office abruptly announced plans on Monday to close all the country's polarizing private security companies by year's end, a decision that could create more risk for the U.S.-led military along crucial supply routes into Afghanistan.
In an announcement that appeared to catch NATO officials by surprise, Karzai vowed to shutter the lucrative network of private security firms.
"The government of Afghanistan has decided that the security companies have to go," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said.
If the president follows through with the short timeline, the decision could strip NATO supply routes of the private forces, which have provided protection for convoys that come under constant attack.
It would force diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, to find some other way to protect their compounds.
It also could create a volatile new pool of disaffected militants, some of whom already are suspected of having links with the Taliban and of staging attacks on convoys that are passing through their areas.
"Security will get worse," warned Matiullah Khan, one of the country's more influential figures in the murky security convoy business. "The police can't provide security in the provinces, so how can they escort convoys?"
The private security industry, a complex network of registered international companies and unregulated Afghan militias, employs 26,000 people working on U.S. contracts, according to NATO officials. The vast majority of them — about 19,000 — work on military contracts.
The companies have come under fire from almost every front.
Karzai long has argued that the firms act as a parallel security force that undermines the nation's police and army.
Many Afghans fear convoy security guards, who have been accused of wildly opening fire and killing civilians while protecting their routes.
Last month, contactors with DynCorp International were involved in a fatal car crash in Kabul that sparked violent anti-American protests and raised fears that the isolated demonstration could devolve into widespread rioting.
Some of the firms have been accused of using their familial ties to the Karzai government to secure millions of dollars in NATO contracts. Two of Karzai's cousins run one major security company. The defense minister's son runs another.
U.S. officials also have expressed concerns over long-standing allegations that the security firms use NATO funds for the contracts to pay insurgents not to attack the convoys.
The myriad of problems was captured amid the documents that WikiLeaks released recently.
One of the leaked incident reports claimed that Khan, the security convoy mogul, had his armed men stop a convoy and demand that the competing protection force pay a hefty "toll."
In his first weeks in office, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, had moved to craft new regulations on the loosely regulated supply route security.
One NATO official said Monday that they'd been caught "flat-footed" by the announcement and weren't sure how Karzai's order would affect the supply routes.
"We continue to support President Karzai's objective of eliminating the need for private security companies and transition of existing private security companies under government of Afghanistan control, but in a deliberate process that recognizes the scale and scope of the issue," the U.S.-led coalition said in a prepared statement.
Karzai's office released no details on the timeline, but security company officials warned that the Afghan government wouldn't be able to protect the supply routes with its own army and police.
"This whole thing is a knee-jerk reaction and will not help but undermine the security of Afghanistan," said the head of one of the 52 security companies registered with the Afghan government, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the risks to his firm.
"This decision, if taken, shows that the government is not making prudent decisions but creating drama to detract attention from its own problems with the ANA and ANP," he said, referring to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
Karzai's announcement could heighten already frayed relations with NATO officials, who have stepped up anti-corruption investigations that have begun to touch the highest levels of the president's government.
Also on Monday, Afghan and international human rights groups denounced the Taliban amid reports that the Islamic hard-liners had ordered the public stoning of a young Afghan couple accused of adultery. Human rights groups said it was the first time the Taliban had used public stoning since U.S.-led forces ousted them from power in 2001.
The incident is the latest to capture attention amid an anxious national debate over how much power the Karzai government should cede to the Taliban in potential peace talks to end the nearly nine-year-old war.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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