Afghanistan's president on Monday brushed aside appeals from international officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to reverse plans to close private security companies.
If President Hamid Karzai moves ahead with the plan to replace private guards with 30,000 to 40,000 Afghan troops by the end of the year, it could result in the shutdown of hundreds of millions of dollars in development projects because international organizations don't trust Afghan forces to protect their workers.
A shift to using Afghan troops could also detract from a NATO strategy to have Afghan forces assume more responsibility for protecting areas cleared of Taliban fighters.
Karzai has wanted to close down the security companies for years. He said they lure away Afghan soldiers and policemen by offering higher salaries and he also charges they pay money to warlords and drug traffickers and enter houses and illegally seize property by force.
The president didn't mention any plans to exempt NATO convoys, also protected by private guards, from the ban. Some of the private security companies previously used to protect NATO convoys were believed to be paying off insurgent groups for protection.
"Having these private security companies, there is no hope that the Afghan security forces are going to develop," Karzai said. "The salary of these private security guards is paid by the foreigners, so their salary is much higher than the police."
Karzai said the international community should be supporting his efforts but had failed to wean themselves of their reliance on private gunmen.
"Instead of disbanding them, they expanded them," he said. "Not only did they try to expand security companies, they even tried to involve relatives of the high-ranking officials _ their brothers, their sons. They even involved jihadi commanders in the private security companies, trying to put pressure on us that way."
A 2007 study by the Swiss Peace Commission found there were 18,500-28,000 private security guards. The Karzai government now says there are between 30-40,000.
NATO declined to comment on the president's speech.
A Western official familiar with the negotiations said they support the president's decree. Discussions were ongoing to find a way to implement it that doesn't undermine the development and security of Afghanistan, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Karzai tried to reassure international donors that the Afghan security forces would provide protection for large, national reconstruction projects. Military commanders say projects which help provide agricultural materials and improve infrastructure such as roads and bridges are essential to winning hearts and minds in areas that military forces have cleared of Taliban.
The U.S. Agency for International Development alone has budgeted $4.2 billion to spend this year in Afghanistan and asked for $3.7 billion next year to fund projects ranging from road and infrastructure building, hydroelectric dams, health programs and training local officials to govern.
But if no solution was available to provide security for their contractors, Karzai said, that target might not be met.
"We are going to take special security measures for those projects," he said.
Some contractors responsible for the projects had warned that the decree meant they would have to close because they would be unable to ensure their staff if they were being protected by the badly trained, poorly paid Afghan police. Companies running reconstruction projects can't legally operate in Afghanistan without insurance but insurers don't trust local security forces.
Less than 20 percent of entry-level police are literate and around 10 percent of serving police tested positive for drugs, a NATO official said in an August briefing.
In other developments Monday, four gunmen seized a Dutch aid worker and his Afghan driver in northern Afghanistan's Takhar province, said Provincial Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa, quoting witnesses. The two were working with an aid group helping disabled people.
Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Bart Rijs confirmed that a Dutch man and his Afghan driver had been kidnapped, but gave few details.
Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dangerous for aid workers. In August, 10 members of a Christian medical team _ six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton _ were ambushed and later killed by gunmen in neighboring Badakhshan province. Last month, a British woman working for a development organization was kidnapped in eastern Afghanistan and accidentally killed by U.S. forces during a failed Oct. 8 rescue attempt.
In southern Afghanistan, a raid by NATO soldiers and a subsequent airstrike killed 15 insurgents, NATO said.
Around a dozen gunmen on motorcycles fired on the international forces as they were preparing to destroy a bomb-making factory and weapons cache they found during a search of several compounds in the village of Maigan, the coalition said. Troops killed them and then called in the airstrike to destroy the compounds.
NATO has also been trying to kill or capture Taliban leaders in airstrikes and in joint ground operations with the Afghan army as they try to wrest back control of the southern provinces from the Taliban.
Residents say the push has resulted in patches of security in the south, but the insurgency has stepped up attacks in other parts of the country, including the north, which has traditionally been more stable.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.