Pul-i-Charkhi, Aghanistan - In a wood-paneled office here in the dusty fringes of Kabul, Hajji Shirin Dil feverishly works the phones. He shouts orders into one receiver as he dials another phone, while aides wait patiently to speak to him.
He could be a Wall Street day trader, if not for the sleepy gunmen by his side. Instead, Dil owns a profitable logistics company and is cutting deals with various warlords, whose private security companies protect his trucks carrying vital provisions to the foreign troops.
But a recent pledge by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to ban security companies threatens to grind this business to a halt, and in the process calls attention to the foreign forces' reliance on a complex network of private companies and local strongmen to protect their supply lines.
"I can't move anything without protection," said Dil. "The Taliban can stop my trucks and the foreigners won't get supplies."
The move highlights the paradoxical position of foreign forces here. Meant to be building democratic institutions, they nevertheless pay millions to strongmen and private security companies that undermine those institutions. Why? It's the way they protect their supply lines and their ability to fight against the Taliban.
But the arrangements sometimes benefit the insurgents. Some private security companies pay protection money to the Taliban, while the heavy-handed tactics of others generates public anger and fresh recruits for the group. Afghan officials say this is why Karzai ordered a ban on private security companies. Even some trucking companies back the move, hoping that the Afghan government will provide regular, reliable security.
The proposed ban has prompted a flurry of meetings in the United Nations, foreign embassies and military circles. "We are utterly reliant on local contractors to make this war work," said a Western military official involved in logistics. "We simply do not have the ability to do it all ourselves, nor do the Afghan forces."
President Karzai announced the ban in August, citing the companies' poor human rights records and the need to clamp down on warlordism. He decreed that by 2011 all such companies - which include 52 licensed foreign and Afghan companies and scores of unlicensed ones that employ more than 40,000 people - must cease operations.
Under international pressure, Karzai has agreed to limit the ban to security companies not working for foreign embassies or organizations, but the precise nature of the exceptions -- or even if he'll follow through with the ban in other areas -- is not clear.
The history of Watan Risk Management demonstrates how NATO's reliance on private security contractors has spawned a new class of Afghan warlords who are well-entrenched and unlikely to fade away quietly.
Ruhullah, until recently the company's chief commander, is considered one of the most powerful men along the perilous stretch of highway between Kabul and Kandahar, a vital artery for the U.S. miiltary and international aid agencies alike.
He was a fruit wholesaler before the fall of the Taliban, then he got his start by providing security to CNN and CBS reporters. He recruited men from his home village in Dand, Kandahar, and was soon able to amass a force of hundreds ready to provide protection. He branched out into providing security for non-governmental organizations and NATO supply convoys. Today Ruhullah charges $1,000 per truck, and his force accompanies up to 500 trucks a week between Kabul and Kandahar.
"Nothing would happen without our help," said Ruhullah in an interview. "We help the foreign forces and therefore help stability."
While Ruhullah enjoys a near monopoly from Kabul to Kandahar, when trucking companies want to go further west - to supply troops in Helmand, for instance - they pay whichever local warlord or government official happens to be in the area to protect their convoy.
"We sometimes just wait around and when some trucks come, we charge them to protect them," explains a police officer in Helmand's Lashkar Gah. Truckers themselves often negotiate a price on the spot, sometimes paying thousands of dollars to move from one town to the next. Some companies have cultivated relationships with Afghan Army and police commanders and pay them regularly for protection. In Helmand, for instance, associates of Governor Gulab Mangal are involved in the business.
THE BUSINESS OF PROTECTION
Some are concerned that the ban will make it even harder to regulate and hold Afghanistan's private armies accountable for their actions. In the days after Karzai's announcement, Ruhullah resigned from his company, calling the job a "bloody business." But within a week, he and his men had restarted convoy escorts, this time directly charging trucking companies instead of working through the licensed company, Watan, according to logistics company executives.
That may have put convoys that used licensed groups in greater danger.,
A U.S. House investigation found earlier this summer that Ruhullah and other commanders paid the Taliban not to attack their convoys. After Ruhullah left Watan, company associates that the number of attacks against the company skyrocketed. "They are now losing 30 to 50 guys a month," said a Western security consultant who has worked with convoy protection companies. "If you don't pay, you are going to get hit. It's that simple."
The companies protect a long supply chain, stretching from ports in Pakistan to small military outposts in Afghanistan. NATO forces, for instance, pay two multinational logistics conglomerates - APL and Maersk Line - to arrange delivery of almost all materiel for their troops.
The goods arrive daily in port in Karachi, Pakistan, and are then shipped through the restive tribal areas of Pakistan to the Afghan border town of Torkham. There the transport is subcontracted to four Afghan trucking companies, who are responsible for bringing the materiel safely to military outposts.
"Usually a truck will wait in Torkham until we find someone who is willing to accompany it," explained Dil, who owns one of the four subcontracted companies. This includes local warlords or police and army officers, who charge $100 per truck for the relatively safe journey to Kabul.
But the far more dangerous trip from Kabul to bases further south, such as Kandahar or Helmand, runs right through Taliban territory, that's where men like Ruhullah come in.
VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
Detractors insist that Ruhullah and other commanders regularly violate human rights. One of the most notorious is Zhed Gulalai, a convoy commander connected to strongman Governor Gul Agha Sherzai of Nangarhar province. A number of locals and government officials in Kandahar accuse Gulalai of false imprisonment, torture, extortion and stealing land.
"He and his men would target rival tribes, throw people in jail and in general cause them to join the Taliban," said Hajji Ehsan, a member of the Kandahar provincial council. Gulalai received hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect foreign bases and occasionally protects convoys as well, according to Afghan officials and western contractors.
In Helmand, the police chief of Musa Qala district, known simply as Koka, regularly deploys his police force to protect convoys in return for money. He is accused by current and former government officials of summary executions, land grabbing, and more.
"His cruelty is as clear as the sun for the people here," said a tribal elder from Musa Qala, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Last year he accused one of the residents here of having connections to the Taliban and forced him to pay 700,000 Pakistani Rupees for his freedom." That is about $8,000, a huge sum for most Afghans.
Some of these strongmen and companies are officially registered, but others are not. According to the Interior Ministry, there are 59 unlicensed companies, and scores of independent commanders, operating throughout the country. For instance, Commander Tor Jan runs an illegal private company that is contracted to protect the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Kandahar.
To complicate matters, Karzai's close associates themselves are involved in the business - two cousins of the president run Watan, and another cousin runs the Asia Security Group company. A number of other high-ranking officials - including the vice president and defense minister - are tied to security companies.
Some analysts and Western officials speculate that the announced ban could be a move to consolidate the interests of Karzai-linked commanders at the expense of rivals, something palace officials deny.
It is unclear what would replace the companies. Some officials have said that Afghan forces would fill the void, but many do not believe they are ready. Insiders at the Interior Ministry suggested the various commanders could be rolled into a nascent program meant to use militias and local defense forces to protect infrastructure.
But officials from all sides agree that it will take time before plans are finalized. "There is going to be some dealing and some compromises that are made," said the Western security consultant. "What the final entity will look like is anybody's guess."
In the meantime, trucking company owner Hajji Shirin Dil is hedging his bets. "I'll keep paying warlords or whoever agrees to protect my trucks," he said, "otherwise, this war would not run."