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Afghan convoy security undermines Afghan security

Millions are paid to Afghan private security companies to deliver food and ammunition to NATO troops. But the companies are accused of human rights abuses and paying the Taliban.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent / October 28, 2010

A private security contractor watches a NATO supply truck drive past in the province of Ghazni, south-west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Oct. 27. Intense negotiations continued between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community over the Afghan government's Dec. 17 deadline for ridding the nation of private security guards.

Rahmatullah Naikzad/AP Photo

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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.

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He could be Wall Street day trader, if not for the sleepy gunmen by his side. Instead, Mr. 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,” says 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,” says 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.

Convoy kings

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 new 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 US miiltary and international aid agencies alike.

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