Presence of US-backed private security in Afghanistan seems only to contribute to the ongoing violence.
As the world media spotlight fixes on the Syria crisis, hidden from view is the continuing bloody war raging in Afghanistan, where civilian casualties are escalating. Adding to the death toll are U.S.-backed private security contractors.
In a recent incident currently under investigation by NATO, a gunman, possibly a private security guard, shot dead a member of the U.S.-led international coalition in southern Afghanistan last week before being killed. Although information on this shooting remains sketchy, it looks to be a mistaken response to an increasing trend of insider attacks that are occurring in U.S. military bases. As the U.S military heightens security on its bases, it exposes a larger question of whether private security companies are equipped to deal with complex situations and whether shootings like this create more distrust with Afghan civilians.
These “insider attacks” usually take place on U.S. military bases, where rogue soldiers dressed in American uniforms or Afghan police uniforms enter the base with fake ID cards and a mission to kill as many U.S. soldiers as possible. The problem is that rogue gunmen dressed as Afghan police are also killing and extorting money from Afghan civilians. In this chaos, Afghans are not looking to the Afghan government to solve the problem, but are blaming U.S. private security contractors.
For many Afghans, it looks like history is repeating itself. President Hamid Karzai had to shut down U.S private security contractors from profiting off of some security duties and training Afghan police, where there was widespread reports of killings, extortion, land grabs and corruption. In his decree in 2010 President Karzai said:
“In order to protect Afghan life and property, avoid corruption, security irregularities and the misuse of military weapons, ammunition and uniforms by the private security companies which have caused tragic incidents, and after the required assessment, I approve shutting down all private security companies within four months, including both domestic and foreign.”
Communities in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand province have not forgotten the damage private security contractors caused in the past, and are now looking at these rogue soldiers dressed as Afghan police as part of the same problem.
According to Shaliz, a Kabul resident, there is growing anger in Kabul and other Afghan provinces that President Karzai isn’t moving quickly on the issue of banning private security in Afghanistan.
Shutting down the private security forces in Afghanistan poses a problem for the U.S. administration. It exposes an uncertainty of whether the U.S. can really afford to withdraw all its troops in 2014 in a climate of Taliban insurgent attacks.
Many Afghan citizens share Shaliz’s sentiments that the use of private security contractors and their excessive and sometimes deadly reactions to situations have only increased support for the Taliban.
The problem with private security forces
There are still over 40,000 private security contractors operating in Afghanistan; some of the biggest contractors are Academi (formerly called Blackwater USA) and international firm Dyncorp International. The U.S administration awarded Academi $22 million to house U.S. Special Operations Forces and awarded various contracts to Dyncorp, including mentoring and training programs for Afghan police. Both of these companies have a long track record of criminal and illegal activities perpetrated by their personnel.
According to Project of Government Oversight (POGO) database of federal contractor misconduct, Blackwater has had 9 major violations of law, including 288 alleged violations of the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations for illegal weapons exports to Afghanistan, making unauthorized business plans with South Sudan and the Baghdad shootings in 2007, where Blackwater personnel opened fired and killed bystanders in Al Watahba Square. Dyncorp also has had 10 major violations, according to POGO, including personnel involved in sexual harassment cases, and participating and profiting in sex trafficking in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Controlling personnel who are placed in dangerous zones, where combat, suicide bombers and snipers are common tactics used by insurgent groups, has proven difficult enough for regular military forces. So how do you control hired gunmen?
Chante Wolfe, an Iraq veteran, said: “When you’ve done one of two tours of duty and you come home, there aren’t going to be jobs for you, not for soldiers. Unemployment is high among vets, so these places are the only people hiring soldiers with no transferrable skills.”
“Blackwater, Dyncorp pays good money … What you have to understand, if you served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, [is] everything changes, you do whatever it takes to survive the surprise attacks, the shelling, snipers, so you live off adrenaline. I was with soldiers who would drive around the desert and go out of his way to a shoot a dog or fly over to shoot a camel. Once you’re living off adrenaline for prolonged periods, it’s hard to shut off. So these private security jobs and guns for hire will seem like a great solution to a lot of vets.”
Dyncorp is one of the biggest recruiter of U.S. veterans and made the Military Times EDGE magazine’s 2013 list of “Best for Vets” employers, as well as earning White House recognition for hiring more than 7,300 veterans as part of its Joining Forces initiative. But private security companies do not exclusively hire veterans from the military — some recruits have not seen any military action and are simply drawn to the excitement.
A Dyncorp armed security and transport employee named Michaels said, “I don’t know where they get some of these guys from. I think they like to carry big guns around and like to wear the gear. You expect them to shoot themselves in the foot.”
Wolfe describe these people as being addicted to adrenaline, “where they can need and seek out high levels of danger and excitement — putting other soldiers lives in danger as well as their own”
Recruitment is one of the problems of private security contractors; the other is the structure of command.
Wolfe said, “A lot of these security firms do not fall in international [law] or the Geneva Convention because they are not the military. So they have free reign to do whatever they want, which is dangerous because it becomes a power thing. They can do whatever they want and get away with it.”
The U.S. government contracted private security companies as part of its withdrawal strategy to provide Afghan police and armed service with weapons and training so that they can provide their own security without any interference from international forces.
Contracting out some of the mentoring and training schemes to train Afghan police in the outer provinces has also received widespread criticism. The program to train local Afghan police has been linked with reports of rape, killings and other human rights abuses. It appears that after the training, some Afghan police are using these weapons and techniques learned to extort money, grab land, rape and kill.
The reports of misconduct of private security companies led the U.S. Congress to look into the issue, and a report by the Congressional Research Service, titled “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security and U.S. Policy,” highlighted the detrimental effect private security forces have in war-torn and politically sensitive areas.
“An outgrowth of the Village Stability Operations is the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program in which the U.S. Special Operations Forces conducting the Village Stability Operations set up and train local security organs of about 300 members each. These local units are under the control of district police chiefs and each fighter is vetted by a local shura as well as Afghan intelligence. There are about 23,000 ALP operating in nearly 100 districts. A total of 169 districts have been approved for the program, and there are expected to be 30,000 ALP on duty by December 2015. However, the ALP program, and associated and preceding such programs discussed below, were heavily criticized in a September 12, 2011, Human Rights Watch report citing wide-scale human rights abuses (killings, rapes, arbitrary detentions, and land grabs) committed by the recruits. The report triggered a U.S. military investigation that substantiated many of those findings, although not the most serious of the allegations.45 In May 2012, Karzai ordered one ALP unit in Konduz disbanded because of its alleged involvement in a rape there. ALP personnel reportedly were responsible for some of the insider attacks in 2012.”
As private security contractors are hired for short terms to save money, they have no incentive to ensure the program is working beyond their contract, which poses the question: if regular U.S. forces were used in this program with their prolonged presence and responsibilities in the region, would there still be reports of killings and rape?
Private contractors create more hostilities
Life in Kabul is difficult — food and fuel are often in short supply as the Taliban occasionally blocks roads in and out of the city. Recently, the Taliban stepped up attacks, including a bold attack on the U.S. Embassy.
Shaliz said: “My fear is that things will get worse here – the election is next year and already there are more car bombs and shooting. I fear that if American private security forces are still here and shooting everyone and everything, they will make people hate this government and make [the] Taliban our leader. They should go now.”
Pressure is mounting on President Karzai to restore Afghan control and leadership of its army and police forces, but with the Taliban gaining more control over regions, security is becoming a big issue.
Adding to Karzai’s problems are U.S. military drone strikes, including a September incident that killed eight civilians. Karzai realizes that the U.S government’s policy on counterterrorism in neighboring Pakistan is seen by many Afghans as a backdoor attempt by the U.S. to stay, raising questions on whether Karzai’s leadership is strong enough to stand up to the Obama administration and finally rid the country of private security forces.
Shaliz said, “People are getting killed and injured by these mercenaries; for years this has been going on, but still there are here. Hamid Karzai promised to ban them 18 months ago, now he says in four months’ time he will ban them. Why can’t he do it now?”