The Afghan president asked Sunday for a list of national aid projects that need protection by private security guards, potentially signaling his wish to reach a compromise over the status of security companies in Afghanistan and safeguard foreign aid projects worth billions of dollars.
President Hamid Karzai spent the day meeting with his ministers and top-level foreign diplomats as they tried to hammer out a compromise between his aim of disbanding private security companies by the end of the year and protecting foreign-funded aid projects threatened by insurgent attacks.
"The list of the big projects and their security needs should be given to the Afghan government and the Afghan government will assess and make a decision," Karzai said in a statement. "These talks will continue."
It's unclear whether the proposal will be accepted by those in the international community who have called for an across-the-board exemption for companies working on internationally funded development projects until Afghan security forces are more capable of taking over security.
The idea of an infamously corrupt government sorting through a list of big-money aid projects and deciding which gets to stay and which gets to go may not sit well with the international community.
Many contractors and aid groups have said they will have to shut down or suspend projects if they are not exempted _ as they won't be able to insure their workers if they're guarded by the notoriously corrupt and poorly trained Afghan police. The ban has also alarmed diplomats, who say winning hearts and minds requires that reconstruction and aid projects follow military successes against the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Karzai on Saturday and suggested an extension to the looming Dec. 17 deadline. That would allow the government to steadily phase out private security companies without disrupting the work of contractors who employ private guards to protect their workers, projects and facilities.
Karzai claims the private guards are undermining his nation's army and police, and wants Afghan security forces to take on the job of providing protection for the aid workers.
But Afghan officials have also said in meetings that they expect the money now going to pay private security firms to be redirected to the Afghan police, according to a diplomatic official familiar with the talks who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. International donors have said those funds will not be automatically shifted to the Afghan government for the country's security forces, the official said.
Contractors who are involved in building roads, schools and hundreds of other development projects have already begun winding down programs, saying they will have to stop their work if they can't employ guards to protect their workers and facilities.
Karzai agreed earlier this year to allow private guards to keep working for foreign governments at embassies, other diplomatic outposts and military facilities. But he has refused to extend the exemption.
Karzai estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 people work for security companies. There are 52 security firms licensed with the Interior Ministry, about half of them Afghan-owned.
The Karzai statement still leaves the aid organizations in limbo _ unsure if their programs will be included in the list of exempted projects. Many such organizations require 60 days to start pulling people out of dangerous places, which means that they'd have to start closing projects now to meet the deadline, according to a Western official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information.
An official from the U.S. Agency for International Development said his organization had spent nearly $10 billion on development in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009 and had budgeted $4.2 billion to spend this year. But if no solution was available to provide security for their contractors, he said, that target might not be met. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing.
The Afghan government has said that its priority is to disband any illegal private companies and those used to guard military supply convoys _ but the focus has shifted in recent weeks to aid organizations as those groups say they might have to shut down.
"Ideally we won't have to close down sites; we'll be able to continue," said William Haight, the head of the Afghanistan Infrastructure Rehabilitation Program, a five-year project run by Louis Berger Group and Black and Veatch to improve roads and electricity.
The group has not halted any projects yet, but Haight said "we're quickly the approaching the time when we will have to."
The group also has already had problems in eastern Paktia province, where local police ordered some of their security guards on a road project to leave their posts, and in one instance even seized their guns.
The weapons were returned within hours and the police backtracked on their demands after higher-level Afghan officials intervened, but the episodes highlight the confusion stemming from the order to disband the firms.
"None of us want the wheels to come off this," Haight said. "Everyone is looking for ways but the bottom line is that whatever the Afghan government comes up with has to provide acceptable security to our organizations or else we can't operate."
Separately, a NATO service member was killed Sunday by a bomb in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said in a statement. It did not provide further details.
NATO and Afghan forces have been aggressively expanding their presence in southern Afghanistan in recent months in an attempt to wrest control of the region from insurgents. Residents say pockets of control have been established but gun battles and bomb attacks are still a daily occurrence.
Sunday's death brings the number of international service members killed this month to 49.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report.