Commentary

Security Peddlers Eye Afghan Windfall

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times on February 4, 2009

As the President Barack Obama administration in the United States grapples with what to do about Afghanistan, one thing is certain; it is good news for the private military and security industry. As the United States sends more troops there they will be accompanied by an increase in private contractors.

The US military expects to send three additional combat brigades - between 10,000 and 12,000 troops - to Afghanistan between late spring and midsummer.

More troops means more supplies, which means more trucks and tankers carrying weapons, food, fuel, and construction materials to build barracks and support structures are needed, driven in from Pakistan or Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, or even Russia. As these are favored targets of the Taliban the military needs to hire protection services from private security firms, as it does not have enough forces to guard them all.

But it is not clear whether even private security firms will be capable of providing sufficient protection. Roadside bombs have become the primary threat to forces in Afghanistan. The number of incidents involving “improvised explosive devices”, or IEDs, rose 33% in 2008 from a year earlier, and the number of casualties caused by these roadside bombs increased by the same amount, according to statistics compiled by the US-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, experts say there are about 3,000 foreign security contractors now in Afghanistan.

Andy Bearpark, head of the British Association of Private Security Companies and a former senior official with the US Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, recently said, “The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly and that means more people wanting to buy security.”

Yet questions remain about how well the contractors will be utilized. Remember that because of poor planning it took years for contractors in Iraq to be effectively co-ordinated with regular military forces. The situation there has improved, but Afghanistan, up until recently, received relatively short shrift from US policymakers, and some of the problems that were evident in Iraq early on can still be seen in Afghanistan.

For example, a report released last Thursday by the office of retired Marine Major General Arnold Fields, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, stated that there is no coherent strategy for that country’s US$32 billion reconstruction campaign.

The market for private military firms in Afghanistan, which is estimated to be worth $3 billion a year, is likely to be tougher. Ironically, considering the authority of the Afghan government is less extensive than in Iraq, Afghanistan is a more developed market with tighter regulations.

While there are still contracts to be won in Afghanistan, they are less lucrative and more spread out. Also, the Afghan government has watched what has happened in Iraq and is aware of past problems with contractors. Thus, those looking for a new private military company gold rush in Afghanistan are going to be disappointed.

In Afghanistan, the force largely consists of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, unlike in Iraq which has predominantly US forces, so everything is split up into numerous contracts. And, as the scope of reconstruction work is far smaller than in Iraq, the overall number of contracts and people needing security services is less, which means there is less room for niche players.

That is not to say there aren’t considerable contractors there already. And there have been more than a few problems.

Last spring, two former employees filed a lawsuit against ArmorGroup, charging the British security firm with lying to the US State Department to win a lucrative contract to protect the US embassy in Kabul.

Nevertheless, last April ArmorGroup North America, a Virginia, US-based subsidiary of ArmorGroup International, was awarded the contract to provide guard services at the US embassy in Kabul. The contract, worth up to $189 million, will run for up to five years.

Meanwhile, clashes between coalition forces and private security personnel are not unknown. In one recent case American Rangers came under attack. When the dust settled, 22 Afghans lay dead and six American soldiers were wounded. Some Afghan and US officials say they were hired by an Afghan road-construction firm to protect nearby workers.

In another case, last year a Canadian soldier was allegedly killed by Afghan private security contractors while Canadian soldiers were engaged in a firefight with the Taliban. According to a report in the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes, a private convoy that included groups from two different security companies - Compass and USPI - opened fire, apparently thinking they were under attack. In the end there was little that the Canadian and American officers could do, except take the names of the Afghans in charge of the convoy and the names of the suspected shooters. Another problem is that in Afghanistan private security forces don’t work for the US government, but for Afghan and foreign companies. And they employ native Afghans, not Westerners. While employing host country nationals is positive it raises issues of security, as it can be difficult to run the necessary background checks.

Some US and Afghan officials believe there are guards taking orders from the Taliban or drug lords. They also worry that the legitimate guards lack proper training or oversight.

According to Lieutenant General Abdul Manan Farahie, an Afghan Interior Ministry official charged with overseeing the companies, the firms employ at least 20,000 Afghans, while thousands of other nationals work freelance security jobs. He said many of the guards have more powerful weapons than the national police and army, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

The Afghan media have been critical of private security contractors. Last August, an article in the Kabul Weekly noted: “Private security is a growing business in Afghanistan, but the sector still lacks monitoring because of an absence of effective regulations and enforcement.”

Ironically, the trend in private security is paralleled with a rise in abductions of Afghans for steep ransoms. The criminal networks behind these abductions operate with impunity. Few cases are prosecuted and, while there have been arrests, cases are often tied up in corruption and petty feuds between police and the public.

Last autumn, Mainawal Rahman Building & Construction (MBC), an Afghan construction company, and eight of its employees filed a federal lawsuit against US-based DynCorp International, alleging that it engaged in fraud, threatened workers and took $2.5 million worth of equipment and materials that belonged to MBC.

In the lawsuit, MBC alleges that DynCorp fired it from the project in August without notice and a few days later sent security guards, armed with “AK-47 assault rifles at the ‘ready’ position”, to a camp where MBC workers lived, ordering 135 of them to leave in one hour and abandon their equipment.

In Afghanistan, DynCorp provides law-enforcement training, construction management and translation services. Its contracts include training Afghan National Police.

Still, the basic market facts of Afghanistan - innumerable reconstruction and military supply tasks and not enough regular forces - mean that contractors are still in demand.

That is why when the Canadian government recently announced it was going to spend $50 million to refurbish Dahla Dam in the northern region of Kandahar province it chose Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin to hire a private Afghan security team to stand watch.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq