The push by Afghanistan's president to nationalize legions of private security guards before the end of March is encouraging corruption and jeopardizing multibillion-dollar aid projects, according to companies trying to make the switch.
President Hamid Karzai has railed for years against the large number of guns-for-hire in Afghanistan, saying private security companies skirt the law and risk becoming militias. He ordered them abolished in 2009 and eventually set March 20 of this year as the deadline for everyone except NATO and diplomatic missions to switch to government-provided security.
Afghan officials are rushing to meet the cutoff with the help of NATO advisers. But with fewer than six weeks to go, it's likely that many components will still be missing on March 20. And even once everything falls into place, higher costs and issues of authority over the government guards will remain.
The change imperils billions of dollars of aid flowing into Afghanistan, particularly from the United States. In a country beset by insurgent attacks and suicide bombings, the private development companies that implement most of the U.S. aid agency's programs employ private guards to protect compounds, serve as armed escorts and guard construction sites.
On March 21, approximately 11,000 guards now working for private security firms will become government employees as members of the Afghan Public Protection Force, or APPF. They will still be working in the same place with the same job. Except now they'll answer to the Interior Ministry.
"We don't want to have security gaps. This is really important to our customers and to us," said the head of the APPF, Deputy Minister Jamal Abdul Naser Sidiqi. It will happen, he says, because the presidential order says it has to.
Officially, everyone is optimistic.
"The APPF is now open for business," a U.S. embassy official said, speaking anonymously to discuss private agency contracts.
But many are still worried that the entire plan could fall apart. Development contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development told The Associated Press they were explicitly told not to discuss the changeover with reporters because media attention could endanger the delicate process. Everyone critical of APPF insisted on speaking anonymously for this article.
Last week the chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern that the APPF may not be ready to take over security for aid projects.
Even so, no one expects that there will be a visible problem on March 21.
"The guys who guard our gates today wear a certain baseball hat, and on the 21st of March they'll come wearing a different uniform. It should be pretty seamless," said Bill Haight, head of an infrastructure-building project run by Louis Berger Group and Black and Veach. He said his projects are nearly finished and so he doesn't expect many problems.
But companies with long-running projects are worried. New contracts and operating rules will probably still be in the works when the deadline hits.
The APPF has yet to sign a contract to provide security for any of the approximately 75 companies expected to switch over to government guards in March, according to Noorkhan Haidari, the APPF business manager.
And international firms that are expected to act as middlemen managing the guards are having trouble getting licensed. Though about 20 companies have said they plan to register as so-called Risk Management Companies, or RMCs, only one license has been issued _ reportedly after a wait of about two months. Others trying to get licensed say the required documents change every day.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Foreign Ministry has also denied visas to foreign workers for at least three security companies that are trying to get registered as RMCs or are working on one of the exempt contracts, according to a security adviser for a major development contractor. These firms have been told they have to wait for new procedures under the new APPF system. But given that they don't have much time to get everything in line, they're increasingly looking at what bribes they can pay to make it happen, the same person said.
Firms don't have to hire RMCs, but they add a level of management and oversight that meets the standards of international organizations.
Companies have long hired private guards precisely because they don't trust the Afghan police to protect them in a crisis. The United Nations used Afghan police to guard its staff housing until an 2009 attack on a residential hotel in which Taliban assailants quickly made it past police guards and killed five U.N. staffers. The U.N. has since increased its security to include foreign guards.
Afghans working with APPF have gone so far as to urge the business licensing agency to "stop stalling the process," according to a letter sent to U.S. government officials by a development company and obtained by the AP.
"The painfully slow momentum of the various Afghan government entities may have scuppered the chances of a timely handover to the APPF," the letter argues.
Sidiqi said the complaints of delays were overblown, noting that there is a standard three-day licensing process. If there are delays, he said it is because the would-be RMCs are dragging it out.
"We need the RMCs," Sidiqi said. "They have the experience."
He dismissed the possibility of bribery. "This is a legal government organization, so corruption is not going to be possible," Sidiqi said.
But with so much undecided, some development organizations are opting to hunker down inside their compounds until the details are worked out.
A manager with one U.S. government development contractor said the company expects to delay visits to projects in dangerous places until all documents are finalized. The official spoke anonymously to avoid endangering contracts still being negotiated.
Going forward, the development company manager worried about recruiting for projects in places like the insurgent-heavy south. Some employees have already said they won't sign on to projects if their only security is going to be APPF guards.
But even once the RMCs are licensed and in-country, it is unclear that they will provide an easy transition.
These companies will not be able to directly control the guards that they manage. They can only give advice to an Afghan supervisor. If there's a dispute between the two, it will have to be taken to a government-run arbitration panel.
The issue has already caused problems on APPF-guarded projects before the mandatory switch. During the 2010 parliamentary elections, Afghan police pulled a group of APPF guards who were protecting a railroad construction project in the northern province of Balkh off their posts to guard polling stations, according to the former APPF commander.
"I told them it was a violation of the law but they said you have to do it. I was obliged," said Sayed Asghar Asgari. So he gave over 50 of his 462 guards. The guards were returned four days later, but the incident shows the potential for a blurring of lines between the Afghan security forces and guard units.
And as budgets for aid projects are decreasing, the APPF program is likely to increase security costs substantially.
An APPF guard will cost at least $770 a month, according to an AP analysis of official government figures, while private security providers contacted for this story say they usually charge $510-$630 a month per guard.
To avoid pay cuts for guards, individual companies will have to supplement salaries. And any costs for RMC managers will be on top of this. Once these expenses are figured in, security costs could easily double under the APPF.
It is still not clear what these changes will mean for existing USAID contracts. The aid agency has given no overarching guidance for how it will deal with delays or higher costs, though it has urged its partners to review their individual contracts to decide what their obligations and rights will be, the U.S. embassy official said.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government won't officially have all the APPF guards trained for more than a year. By March 20, about 1,840 of the existing guard force will have gone through the formal training program, which graduates about 220 people every three weeks, according to a NATO official who spoke anonymously to discuss an Afghan government program.
The hope is that on-the-job training will be enough in the near term, especially since most private security guards will probably agree to join the APPF. But like much with the APPF right now, it is just a hope.
"It is very complicated and very difficult, but we are trying our best," Sidiqi said.