Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Thieves by day, terrorists by night...necessary in between

The rationale behind Hamid Karzai’s ongoing campaign against private security firms and the approach he has taken range from senseless to actually quite sagacious, which is exactly why a compromise must be found in the middle...

The latest showdown between Kabul and private security firms (PSF) operating in Afghanistan has seen a government probe accuse 16 firms of major violations.  For those unfamiliar, I say “the latest showdown” as this episode is but one of many that can be broadly categorised as an incremental campaign, headed by President Karzai, to push PSFs out of Afghanistan.  

Described by Karzai as “thieves by day” and “terrorists by night”, PSFs have garnered a reputation for acting outside of the law through infringements such as hiring too many guards, evading taxation and maintaining unregistered weapons and vehicles through to more grave violations including the alleged killing of citizens.  It seems the murky world of legitimate mercenaries has, once or twice, blurred with the often controversial world traditionally associated with paramilitaries. 

Perhaps it is reasonable therefore that Karzai should wish to assert Afghan autonomy and allow Afghan security forces to take responsibility for the security of their own nation.  After all, a crucial component of any counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign is to train indigenous forces and transfer responsibility to them over time.  We neither can nor want to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Yet before you mistake me for a romantic idealist, allow me to pop your bubble.  PSFs are integral supplementary cogs in the ISAF machine.  25,000 individuals are employed by PSFs in Afghanistan; 19,000 by the US military alone.  That is a lot of boots, covering a lot of ground.  These forces provide security for military bases, logistical lines, aid organisations and any number of necessary contingents.  With the draw down of ISAF forces a constant topic of conversation and action at home, the role played by PSFs in filling the security vacuum in Afghanistan becomes all the more apparent.  While his rationale is therefore understandable, Karzai’s plans for the dissolution of the private security sector are both premature and perilous.

But this assessment should not assign impunity to PSFs.  Yes – they are important; no – they are not above the law.  Perception counts for much in COIN and legitimacy is therefore key.  Failure to recognise this fact can taint mercenaries with the brush of paramilitaries and forge a slippery road to defeat.  Take for example, the controversial role played by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC ) in Colombia.  While considered by Bogotá to be a central component in its war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the AUC has time and again flagrantly crossed legal boundaries, incensing human rights groups and more importantly, driving sympathy for the left-wing Guerrillas.  COIN 101; don’t steer the population into the arms of the insurgent.

And so, if the risks of dissolution and impunity represent the extreme ends of the scale, then the solution lies between.  PSFs have a role to play in Afghanistan and will do for the foreseeable future, but they must act within the confines of Afghan law.  Perhaps Karzai’s nuanced stance which now seems to favour hefty fines over dissolution indicates that he is swapping intransigence for understanding.

by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, 09/02/11, accessed at

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