Private security contractors lack accountability

A recent shootout in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that left 10 people dead is helping to focus attention on the issue of private security companies, and the existing lack of accountability concerning their activities.

The June 29 incident in Kandahar involved security contractors employed by coalition military forces. A group of the contractors attacked a local police station apparently in an attempt to free a colleague who had been taken into custody for supposedly forging documents. In addition to two senior police officers, eight civilians died in the armed confrontation. Hours after the shootout, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement asking the US-led coalition forces to hand over the private security contractors suspected of involvement in the killings. Later, 41 Afghan security contractors were placed under arrest.

Representatives of coalition forces emphasized that no foreign troops and no “foreign nationals” were involved in the incident. A coalition spokesman went on to characterize the attack as “Afghan on Afghan.”

Nevertheless, the attack is prompting heightened scrutiny of the coalition practice of employing de-mobilized local militiamen to provide security. Up to 3,000 former Afghan militia fighters are directly employed by the US military in Operation Enduring Freedom, according to an estimate prepared by Swisspeace, a research outfit focusing on conflict resolution.

In the absence of adequate troop levels and well-trained Afghan forces, international militaries and civilian agencies have used private security firms to protect their personnel and assets since 2001. Given the growing international presence and spiraling insecurity in recent years, the security sector has proven to be highly lucrative. Accordingly, the number of private security companies mushroomed.

Early this year, 39 companies — 21 of them foreign-based — were licensed under regulations issued in 2008. However, loopholes in criminal jurisdiction and accountability allow many security firms to operate in a gray area, seemingly beyond the reach of the Afghan justice system. Some companies, which did not, or could not obtain licenses, reportedly continue to operate with impunity. In some instances, private security contractors employed by foreign militaries or diplomatic missions enjoy immunity.

There are several instances in which security contractors have avoided facing Afghan justice in connection with deadly incidents. For example, on May 5, a shooting in Kabul left one civilian dead and injured two others. The four American Xe (formerly Blackwater) contractors involved left the country after an initial “detention” period, during which the US military carried out its own investigation. The findings of that investigation have not been made public.

Earlier, during an early April visit to Afghanistan to gauge the impact of the private security companies on the Afghan population, a United Nations working group suggested that subcontracting constituted a problem. There are “23,000 people . . . in those [39] companies which are already registered and most of them are not foreigners, most of them are Afghan nationals and they are subject to this problem of improper relations with those who hire them,” the working group’s leader, Alexander Nikitin, said during an April 9 news conference.

Anger among Afghans against private security firms has steadily escalated over the past few years, due to what is seen as unwarranted aggression and thuggish behavior. While incidents involving the use of lethal force usually manage to make their way into the public discourse, the routine harassment and bullying behavior of security contractors, involving contact with Afghan civilians, usually goes undocumented and unreported. For example, private security firms are widely loathed among Afghans for indiscriminately closing roads, setting up private checkpoints, commanding civilian vehicles off the road and frequently using the barrel of a gun to keep Afghans at bay.

While no representative of a private security company would publicly comment, some said privately that they would welcome tighter regulations. Several representatives complained that in the absence of such regulations, their firms end up being tarred with the same brush as the more brutish firms.

The absence of a comprehensive legislative framework is widely seen as one impediment to reform. A bill containing a new set of regulations for private contractors is currently stuck in parliament.

Incidents involving private contractors are expected to increase as more foreign troops arrive in Afghanistan, senior military and UN officials tell EurasiaNet. In his quarterly Afghanistan report issued on June 23, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon predicted an upsurge of violence. “The significant increase in Afghan and international troops fighting the insurgents could also result in an increase in security incidents,” the secretary-general said.

With the increase in violence and the winding down of operations in Iraq, Afghans fear a surge of foreign security contractors will arrive in Afghanistan looking for work. That would be an unwelcome development to Interior Minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar. Following a visit to Kandahar after the June 29 incident, the minister declared that illegal militias were “intolerable” and should be disarmed immediately. This, however, seems easier said than done.