By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai scrapped Sunday a March 2012 deadline he had set for the closure of private security firms, giving them until September 2013 to operate in the country.
Karzai, a frequent critic of private security companies, has previously set dates for the cessation of their work in Afghanistan, but each time the deadline has been extended.
He did not say why he was giving the firms an extra 18 months, but the second half of this year has seen some of the bloodiest attacks on civilians and soldiers in the past decade.
"We agreed with the office, and we give permission for them (to carry on working) for one and a half years more, and one and a half years later (in September 2013) our minister ... will close them all," Karzai said.
The office to which he referred is an umbrella organization run by the interior ministry. From March 2012 the firms will operate within that organization, interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said; then they will be dissolved by the government deadline and their duties handed to Afghan police.
Karzai, speaking at an anti-corruption event in the capital Kabul, said the prevalence of security contractors weakened the state by providing many of the services that the public sector otherwise would.
"Another reason why the Afghan government is not able to tackle corruption is a parallel administration to the Afghan government," he said.
"Private security companies are the biggest barriers to law enforcement, and development of the interior ministry and police," the president said.
PUBLIC PROTECTION FORCE
A branch of the police, the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), is intended to take over the work done by private security firms, a process which has begun, but some in the industry do not believe the APPF would be ready in time.
"The extension of the time frame...is not intended in any way to show support for the work carried out at present by the private security companies," said a security contractor with operations in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It is in fact an admission by President Karzai that the much heralded APPF are unable to deliver within the timeframe, both in numbers and experience," he added.
In August 2010, Karzai said he wanted private security firms -- with the exemption of firms whose guards work inside compounds used by foreign embassies, international businesses and aid and charitable organizations -- to close by the end of that year. The deadline was later pushed back to March 2012.
His government tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to register the firms, find out the amount of arms they had and where they came from, and how much money the industry was worth, an Afghan security source said.
Foreign forces in Afghanistan are in the process of handing responsibility for security over to the Afghan army and police, and by the end of 2014, most foreign combat troops, currently numbering more than 100,000, will have gone home.
Though both Karzai and his international backers want Afghan forces to take control of security, Afghanistan has said that it will not be able to afford the army and police force it needs after 2014 without international help.
Even with the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan, violence is at its worst since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, and last week's rare attacks on Shi'ite Muslim ceremonies have stoked fears of a sectarian conflict on top of the raging Taliban insurgency.
Bomb attacks on the Shi'ite ceremonies Tuesday killed 80 people, Karzai also said Sunday, far higher than the previously reported number, making Tuesday one of the deadliest days for civilians in ten years.
(Writing and additional reporting by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)