The Afghan government is giving companies extensions ranging from a few weeks to 90 days to change from private security guards to a government-run force, officials said Sunday.
The reprieve comes just three days before the March 21 deadline that the Afghan government had set for the majority of companies to start using government-provided security.
Private development companies have said the move is threatening billions in U.S. aid to the country because companies would delay projects or leave altogether because they didn't feel safe using strictly local security over whose training and procedures they have little control.
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.
It's been part of Karzai's larger push for more control over the way his international allies operate in Afghanistan, as seen most recently in his call for NATO troops to pull back from village outposts and to hand over security responsibilities to Afghans more quickly.
Karzai said in 2009 that he wanted private security firms abolished and eventually set the March deadline for all companies except military or diplomatic facilities to use government guards. The ban would effectively end the wide-scale presence of foreigners acting as security contractors, an industry that boomed after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The extensions did not appear to represent a change in policy as much as a recognition that the switch to government guards was taking longer than envisioned.
The process has been chaotic and has been weighed down by lengthy contract negotiations, making it appear unlikely in recent weeks that the Afghan Public Protection Force would be ready to take over for some 11,000 private guards by the deadline.
Companies that have yet to sign contracts are being allowed to continue to use private guards for a limited period of time, most ranging from 30 days to 90 days, said the head of the APPF agency, Jamal Abdul Naser Sidiqi.
Sidiqi argued that this did not amount to a major change as much as a "revised implementation plan."
"This is a process. And on the 21st we are continuing our transition," Sidiqi said. "We are just clarifying the deadline for every individual company." In February, Sidiqi told The Associated Press that the entire handover would be finished by March 21.
A number of deals have already been signed. So far, the APPF has signed 16 contracts with companies to provide security and licensed 14 "Risk Management Companies," according to a NATO official who spoke anonymously to discuss the inner workings of an Afghan government program. The Risk Management Companies will essentially act as go-betweens for companies and the government agency in order to help manage the guards, payments and help hold the Afghan guards to an international standard.
But Afghan officials have said that there are about 75 companies they need to sign contracts with in order to complete the switchover and there were worries that holding to the March 21 deadline would create security gaps.
If the changeover doesn't happen smoothly, a raft of international aid projects could be in danger. Insurgents regularly attack development projects here, so 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.
Most companies working on development projects are being issued temporary 30-day permits for their private security guards, while companies working on convoy contracts are being given 90 days, the NATO official said. The development companies have a shorter extension because their projects tend to be easier to guard and many are already close to having a contract negotiated, the official said.
Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, the commander of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, said the extra time was inconsequential.
"While some firms will operate for a short period under interim licenses, all will now be under APPF and full Afghan sovereignty," Bolger said.
One element to the delay may have been that international military advisers who are helping the Afghan officials were blocked from going to the APPF offices following the shooting deaths last month of two Interior Ministry advisers by an Afghan driver. The APPF advisers are back at their offices now, though with some increased security, according to the NATO official.
Controversies caused by some contractors' behavior, ranging from violence to cultural insensitivity, has given the private security industry a bad name among many Afghans. There have not been as many clashes in Afghanistan as there were in Iraq, but there have certainly been cases of contractor misconduct.
In 2010, for example, U.S. Senate investigators said Xe _ the company formerly known as Blackwater _ hired violent drug users to help train the Afghan army and declared "sidearms for everyone" _ even though employees weren't authorized to carry weapons. The allegations came as part of an investigation into the 2009 shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians by employees of the company.