Afghan President Hamid Karzai has issued a decree that calls on all private security contractors to cease operations in the country within four months.
The decree specifies that it applies not only to private Afghan security firms, but also to private international firms in Afghanistan.
Karzai's spokesman Wahid Omar said the Afghan president made the decision because he thinks the tens of thousands of private security contractors now in the country are undermining Afghanistan's army and police.
Karzai pledged in his inauguration speech in November that he would shut down both foreign and domestic security contractors by November 2011. Today's decree pushes his deadline on that pledge forward by a full year.
Tens of thousands of private contractors now work in Afghanistan to provide security for embassies, NATO convoys, nongovernmental organizations, diplomats, and investors. The U.S. government alone employs about 26,000 private security contractors -- including 19,000 who work with the U.S. military. Those contractors include Afghans as well as foreign nationals.
Source Of Crime, Or Employment?
But with complaints that private security firms are poorly regulated, reckless, and effectively operate outside local law, the issue has become a point of contention between the Afghan government and the international community.
Authorities in Kabul complain, in particular, about private firms hired to guard NATO supply convoys -- alleging the private guards are trigger-happy and sometimes fire at civilians without provocation.
In a speech on August 7, Karzai urged the United States and NATO to stop supporting such private security companies. Karzai suggested private firms have created a separate security apparatus in Afghanistan -- and that some corrupt private Afghan security firms are involved in kidnappings, armed robberies, and organized crime.
"Private security groups and private security companies are a cause of everyday misery in our country," Karzai said. "They abuse the rights of the people. They threaten the security and, God knows, they steal during the day and turn [into] terrorists during the night."
Indeed, Kabul residents have complained to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in the past about private Afghan security firms -- alleging that some have been involved in robbery, looting, and even the killing of innocent Afghans.
But the owner of one private Afghan security firm, Mohammad Shirzai Dildar, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that those allegations should be resolved in court -- not by a broad presidential decree banning all security firms.
Dildar also said that Karzai's government would be responsible for eliminating the jobs that at least 30,000 Afghans depend upon for their livelihood.
"Our government makes a claim [about corrupt security firms and criminal activity], but if there is any evidence in its possession, then it should be presented to court," Dildar said. "We have a judiciary. Their evidence should be brought to the public."
Dildar added that the Afghan government "should provide us with jobs if they want to dissolve us. We do not want and cannot expect the president to add at least 30,000 to 40,000 more people to the unemployed population."
Official Forces 'Not Ready'
Karzai's decree also is expected to meet resistance from NATO officials, foreign governments, and nongovernmental organizations, who rely heavily on private security guards.
Ian Kemp, a London-based independent defense analyst, says that "it is going to be a major effort for Karzai to convince these various organizations to have confidence in the Afghan [government] security forces, who are very hard pressed at the moment expanding their mandate, particularly working alongside [NATO-led] coalition forces in combat operations."
Kemp says that implementation of Karzai's decree also will be difficult because of the vast number of tasks performed by private security contractors -- not just armed-guard work, but also work by translators and liaison officers who go out on patrols with NATO troops into Afghan villages.
"The term 'private contractor' covers quite a variety of personnel who are employed in Afghanistan," Kemp says, adding that foreign governments with forces deployed in Afghanistan that are using local personnel will "clearly" object.
"I think President Karzai is going to find it quite a challenge to eliminate those private security firms employed by investors operating in Afghanistan. But the challenge of trying to eliminate private contractors working for foreign governments is going to be almost impossible."
In Washington, Pentagon officials already are questioning whether a four-month deadline for the elimination of all private security firms in Afghanistan is realistic. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. military wanted private security firms to eventually be eliminated from Afghanistan -- but only when they are no longer needed.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington believed Afghanistan's government forces and police were not yet ready to do the job, though it agreed that "over time, this responsibility should transition to the government of Afghanistan.
Crowley added that the U.S. governments "have a shared goal of improving oversight and management. We will continue to work with the government of Afghanistan as a deliberate process to move to where this responsibility can transition to the government of Afghanistan."
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry has licensed 52 security firms to work in Afghanistan. But U.S. military officials say some older contracts are still being completed by unlicensed firms.
The U.S. military set up a task force in June to tighten regulation and oversight of its security contractors. But its top official, Brigadier General Margaret Boor, has avoided making any statements about security firms could be phased out altogether.
Boor also contends that the Afghan army and police are not yet able to provide all the security needed. Boor says private contractors should be phased out only as the security situation improves.
That is seen as a difficult goal to achieve in just four months -- especially with security deteriorating in recent months across parts of northern and central Afghanistan, and with battles against Taliban militants still raging in the south and southeast.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this story from Prague