The Obama administration is scrambling to avert a crisis over a ban on private security companies in Afghanistan that could force the cancellation or delay of billions of dollars in reconstruction projects considered vital to counterterrorism efforts, officials said Thursday.
U.S. diplomats are preparing for a weekend of tough negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his aides to persuade them to revise the ban that, as it now stands, would bar private security guards from protecting non-governmental and nonmilitary facilities in Afghanistan, the officials said. The ban is set to take effect in mid-December.
"As is, if this was to be enacted tomorrow, a lot of assistance would grind to a halt," said one senior U.S. official familiar with the circumstances. That official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive issue.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the ban could impact about $1.5 billion in U.S.-funded projects in Afghanistan. But the officials said the impact likely would be far greater, affecting billions of dollars in foreign-funded initiatives from road, bridge and school construction projects to teaching and agriculture initiatives.
"All private and private sector assistance would be hit, not just U.S.-funded projects," one official said, noting that about 80 percent of British-funded projects could be affected.
The officials said some companies, notably Bethesda, Md.-based Development Alternatives Inc. that runs projects to support local governance, already have begun to implement contingency plans to draw down their operations in anticipation of the ban. Even if the ban is eventually revised, such drawdowns may cause serious delays in restarting projects, they said.
"If there is too much uncertainty in the interim, given the risks involved, a lot of people are going to get very nervous and leave," the senior U.S. official said. "Our development partners are getting more and more nervous. If they are not sure what's going to happen, they are going to start drawing down."
The official expressed hope that a resolution could be worked out in meetings set for the weekend. "No one wants the level of disruption that we will see if we reach the worst-case scenario," he said.
The Obama administration supports Karzai's goal of overhauling the private security industry in Afghanistan. They note that the lawlessness of the country and need for protection has spawned the creation of more than 150 companies, about two-thirds of which are unlicensed and some of which act like private armies.
The administration successfully lobbied Karzai earlier this year to make exemptions in the ban to cover private security guards working for foreign governments at embassies, other diplomatic outposts and military facilities. But Karzai has refused to extend the exemption.
The State Department said earlier this week that it was working with Karzai's administration "to fully understand what it is trying to do" with the ban. It said it was pleased with the exemptions but had concerns that people doing aid and reconstruction work would not be able to employ private security guards.
"There are some exemptions for those firms that are protecting embassies and military compounds, and we think that's an appropriate step to take, but there are some other issues that we are still trying to work through with the Afghan government," spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday.
"There are still some questions about how this might affect ongoing aid workers and the security that they need to continue to function on behalf of the Afghan people," he said.