Commentary

How Do You Handle 70,000 Unemployed Afghan PSC? Very Carefully

While it’s only one among many factors bedeviling Afghanistan, its substantial private-security contracting industry warrants attention. It’s made up of tens of thousands of Afghan employees, mostly armed guards.

Bear in mind that 2014 is the deadline for Afghanistan assuming responsibility for its own security. This is a date the whole world has an interest in because either Afghanistan will be a more or less stable country —or it will lapse back into the chaotic and destabilized state it was after the Soviets left in 1989.

We all recall how that turned out.

The Afghan government and the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are transferring private security company (PSC) operations to the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), a new Afghan government force.

But substantial uncertainty, to put it politely, and skepticism —to put it more bluntly – persists over APPF’s ability to handle the job. Even more importantly, how it plans to absorb the commanders and former fighters who currently provide the bulk of PSC workforces.

It takes no great imagination to realize that the existence of a huge and suddenly-unemployed armed force could become a significant problem. It’s part of the larger problem of demobilization and disarmament that Afghanistan will face with projected cuts to Afghan National Security Forces and the any reintegration of former insurgents under a likely peace deal.

Last month, Matthieu Aikins at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University assessed the dicey situation in Contracting the Commanders: Transition and the Political Economy of Afghanistan’s Private Security Industry.

Aikins argues that the U.S. and ISAF focus on nation-building as the key to trying to stabilize Afghanistan isn’t the most important remedy:

The country’s near- and medium-term stability is less contingent on institution-building than it is on the political settlement between Afghanistan’s diverse and fragmented political networks and powerbrokers. Only a political settlement can create the stable expectations required to build institutions. If the current elite alliances that have underpinned stability in Kabul and elsewhere are undermined by the effects of transition, the country risks further violence and political crises, regardless of the strength of the ANSF or civil service.”

Think of the PSC industry in Afghanistan like the fabled canary in a coal mine. It is a bellwether of potential trouble ahead. Aikins writes that because it

is so deeply enmeshed with the political economy of Afghanistan’s pre-existing commander networks [a nice euphemism for warlords]; that is, international spending has become implicated in political settlements by empowering certain informal armed groups and commanders. Transition, and the accompanying drawdown in PSC employment, will affect these settlements in complex and potentially destabilizing ways.

Make no mistake —the PSC industry in Afghanistan is enormously powerful, having grown from nothing to immense in a decade of war that the invaders wanted to wage with as few uniformed troops as possible. As in Iraq, they are linked to a privatized model of military and development contracting in a highly insecure post-invasion environment.

But Iraq’s PSCs were typically international companies that employed third-country nationals, along with a small managerial elite of Western security contractors. However, in Afghanistan PSC guards are overwhelmingly Afghan.

How many potentially unemployed guards are we talking about?

Current estimates of the number of armed guards employed by the PSC industry in Afghanistan range from an internal ISAF survey that counted 31,250 current and projected guards directly employed on military contracts to the figure of 70,000 cited by industry and research groups. These figures suggest that the PSC workforce today is at least roughly equivalent in size to the pre-surge ISAF force. The scale of the PSC industry’s Afghan workforce is also matched by the degree to which Afghan powerbrokers and commanders are involved in its ownership and operation. Relatives of President Karzai, Vice President Fahim, former Defense Minister Wardak, Sighatullah Mojadidi, and former Senate Speaker Abdurrab Rasoul Sayyaf have all owned PSCs. And at the provincial level, many powerbrokers owe their ascent to resources and armed groups they’ve accumulated through the industry.

Also, bear in mind, that in contrast to Iraq where the PSCs focused on defending their clients, the Afghan PSCs have taking a more direct combat role:

In the first half of 2010, there were more U.S.-employed PSC employees killed than U.S. soldiers (235 versus 195), and in relative terms PSC employees were 2.75 times more likely to be killed in combat. These figures, which account only for registered PSC personnel, coupled with high-profile incidents in which PSCs engaged in serious combat— such as one incident in Helmand in which the Taliban attacked a massive project employing 1,200 guards, killing 21—added to the perception that the war was being fought as much by a chaotic and unaccountable army of PSC contractors as it was by the United States or NATO.

A third fact to keep in mind is that PSC jobs, while dangerous, pay very well:

On the military side, between 2006 and 2011, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan quintupled from 20,300 to some 99,800 troops deployed in-country, along with 90,339 U.S.-employed contractors. The surge in troop levels was matched by a surge in PSC employment. In September 2007, there were 3,152 PSC companies registered as being employed by the Department of Defense, a number that had risen by 16%, to 3,689, in December 2008. From December 2008 to December 2010, however, U.S. employment of PSC guards rose by more than 400%, to 18,919.14. There are no reliable figures for what portion of development spending went toward private security. One study cited an estimate of 10% to 20%, which though high may have been true of contracts in high-risk areas. The United States reports direct expenditures of $3.8 billion on guard services in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to mid-2011, though this figure does not include all costs for guards paid by numerous subcontractors, including security for supply convoys and development projects.

The transition from private security to the Kabul-run Afghan Public Protection Force has been underway for nearly five years. Under the new regulations, companies contract directly with APPF for private security services, with APPF charging a 20% overhead. While companies typically will transfer their existing guard force, along with its weapons, to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), APPF will assign a specified number of its own officers to the project, which will be responsible for managing personnel.

As Aikins sees it, the handoff of security responsibilities from U.S. and ISAF forces to the Afghan government could foster greater reliance on Afghan PSC, with possibly negative consequences:

As part of the plan for security transition, U.S. and ISAF Special Forces are currently supporting local militias in Afghanistan under a variety of programs, most notably the Village Stability Operations (VSO) platform that establishes and trains Afghan Local Police (ALP). The use of PSCs by Special Forces and the CIA in similar roles, however, is less well known…The PSCs belonging to Special Forces are known by the general military term “Afghan Security Guards” (ASG), and there are believed to be seven CIA-sponsored militias, including the Kandahar Strike Force, the Khost Protection Force, and the Paktika Defense Force. The Campaign PSCs differ from regular PSCs in that they are used in military operations and represent a deliberate attempt to influence the local political landscape by bolstering allies and undermining hostile actors. In this, they resemble the militia programs, but they are not integrated, even in name only, under any sort of Afghan government control.

As the U.S. withdraws militarily from Afghanistan, it’ll be interesting to monitor how well this patchwork of U.S.-funded security forces gets along. Or, more likely, doesn’t.

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a US Navy veteran, and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.