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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.

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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 Commander Ruhullah come in.

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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 Mr. 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,” says 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,” says 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.

Complicating matters

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,” says 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 says, “otherwise, this war would not run.”