Commentary Magazine


The Power of Private Security Firms in Afghanistan Must Be Curbed

It’s easy to shake one’s head in dismay at the latest outburst from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. “Karzai Slams Foreign Advisers” reads the headline in the Wall Street Journal.

And indeed, part of what’s going on here is dismaying — Karzai is throwing a fit over the recent arrest of Mohammad Zia Saleh, one of his national-security aides, on charges of corruption. The arrest was carried out by the Major Crimes Task Force, an Afghan investigative body that gets considerable assistance from Western law-enforcement agencies. Karzai claims that this is a violation of Afghan sovereignty and the constitution, although it is widely believed that he is simply upset that a member of his patronage network has been caught red-handed. The U.S. government is right to try to protect the Major Crimes Task Force and to keep Saleh in jail, although in the future the law enforcers will have to do a better job of laying the political groundwork for such high-profile takedowns.

But Karzai’s latest eruption contains not only cause for concern but also an opportunity that the West should seize. For he fulminated not only against Western advisers but also against the security firms that protect Western interests in Afghanistan:

“The people who are working in private security companies are against Afghan national interest, and their salaries are illegal money. They are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night,” Mr. Karzai said in Saturday’s speech. “If they want to serve Afghanistan they have to join the Afghan police.”

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the proximate cause of this outburst was a road accident in Kabul involving a DynCorp convoy that led to anti-American rioting. But most private security contractors aren’t foreigners. They’re Afghans who work for private security firms that are closely connected to the power structure. Indeed, as this study from the Institute for the Study of War notes, President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, is one of the largest employers of private security forces in the country thanks to his control over firms such as Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group, which are paid to safeguard NATO supplies.

The gunmen employed by Watan and its ilk routinely terrorize Afghans in ways far more corrosive than anything done by DynCorp; they are also implicated in payoffs to the Taliban. If NATO is going to bring more security to southern Afghanistan, it will have to curb the power of these firms and give more control of the roads to Afghanistan’s lawful security forces. President Karzai’s statements provide a perfect opening to do just that.