KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government is scaling back its contentious plans to push private security companies out of the country.
After months of often-frustrating debate with Western leaders, Afghan officials announced Monday that they're going to allow the widely criticized security firms to keep providing protection for international development groups and NATO supply convoys for the foreseeable future.
The decision is expected to forestall a threatened flight of development workers, who'd warned that they'd be forced to abandon their risky work in Afghanistan if the proposed ban took effect.
“This has enabled us to keep our projects going,” said Steven O’Connor, the chief spokesman for Development Alternatives International, a major U.S. contractor that had planned to shutter key projects in Afghanistan if the security-company closures went through.
We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said.
As part of the new order, security firms will be ordered to move their headquarters out of Kabul, where some have been involved in several confrontations with civilians that have sparked destabilizing riots in recent years.
In a surprise move last August, President Hamid Karzai announced a sweeping order that would have forced dozens of private security firms to close their operations in Afghanistan by year’s end.
The decision threw into question the ability of NATO to ferry vital military supplies safely through Afghanistan, of embassies to protect their diplomats and of development groups to continue working on projects in volatile parts of the country.
Some security company officials saw the threat as an attempt by Karzai to push back against persistent criticism from Western leaders about corruption and mismanagement in his government.
Karzai soon revised the directive to allow diplomats to retain protection. But he stood firm on the rest of his decree until some major aid groups began warning that they'd leave the country if the government didn't relent.
Among them was DAI, an international consulting firm that's been a repeated target for insurgents in Afghanistan.
In one of the highest-profile incidents, Afghan militants abducted DAI contractor Linda Norgrove last fall. A U.S. grenade killed her during a botched rescue attempt.
Soon after Norgrove was abducted and killed, DAI publicly warned that it would shutter a five-year, $350 million development program if Karzai followed through with his directive.
After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed personally to Karzai to rethink his decision, he agreed in October to delay fully imposing the ban until February.
On Monday, the Interior Ministry went further by announcing that private security firms will be allowed to keep working with development groups until their contracts with the organizations expire.
The government also will allow several security firms to keep providing protection for NATO supply convoys until the Afghan police establish a special force capable of taking on the responsibility.
Abdel Manan Farahi, a top Interior Ministry adviser, optimistically predicted that the Afghan police would be ready to take on those protection duties in six months. But the country already is stretching itself to build up its police and military so that they can replace U.S.-led forces in protecting their country from Taliban insurgents looking to regain power in Kabul.
Until the new Afghan force is ready, Farahi said, the Afghan government will dispatch 50 police officers to oversee the convoy protection forces, which routinely have been accused of recklessly shooting and killing civilians while ferrying convoys across the country.
“They’ll be here, but with new regulations and code of conduct,” Farahi said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which has been intimately involved in attempts to revise Karzai’s order, welcomed the news.
We will “continue to work with our Afghan partners to ensure that development workers are safe and project sites have adequate security,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
More than 50 registered security firms employ more than 26,000 people under U.S. contracts, with the majority on military contracts. The companies include DynCorp, Four Horsemen International and Watan Risk Management, an Afghan firm run by two of Karzai’s cousins.
While the registered firms will be allowed to keep operating, Farahi said the government was in the final stages of shuttering more than 50 unauthorized security companies that often acted as robber barons on the nation’s roads.
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