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Crime-buster in an Armani suit takes on private armies of Kabul Print
A ride out with the Afghan flying squad on its mission to shut down rogue security firms
Anthony Loyd in Kabul - October 31, 2007

It was a flying squad bust – Afghan style. General Paktiawal sped down Kabul’s mean streets at the head of a column of his gun-toting detectives.

Yet resplendent in a silver-grey Armani suit, slicked-back hair and bling ring, the man in charge looked more Miami Vice than the Sweeney. Even General Paktiawal’s choice of weapon, the Walther PPK clutched in his hand, denoted a certain refined style. It was, after all, James Bond’s second-favourite pistol. No slouch at self-publicity, the CID chief had called up a couple of Afghan television cameramen to accompany him on the raid.

Screeching to a halt in a narrow alleyway at the capital’s outskirts, General Paktiawal burst through the gates of a compound and quickly oversaw the first arrest, spinning the prisoner around to the wall with a hefty clout about the head. “Where are the others? Where are the weapons?” he demanded of the startled man, giving him another backhander for good measure as his men sprinted forward, Kalashnikovs at the ready.

Terrorist cell or Taleban safehouse? Neither. The target of the raid was a private security company protecting a Nato logistics yard. And there was more than just the question of an expired licence for Mellat International Security.

As the general’s men spread out through the compound, arresting 19 of the company’s uniformed guards, they uncovered an arsenal of weapons as well as Afghan army uniforms, electric probes, truncheons and handcuffs. The company might have been hired to safeguard building materials and kit supplies, but its own equipment suggested that its operatives were more a private militia than mere security guards.

The raid was part of series of operations aimed at clearing up the murky private-security sector in Afghanistan. This month eight of the dozens of registered security companies in the capital have been closed in similar style, among them the British-based Olympus Security Group, for an expired licence. There are at least ten more on the list to feel the heat from the suited general.

Some companies have simply failed to license themselves properly under the opaque and corrupt procedures of the Ministry of Interior. Others are fronts for criminal gangs responsible for robberies, kidnap and murder.

Foreign companies under investigation include the Texas-based US Protection and Investigation (USPI), responsible for protecting the Kajaki dam in Helmand, where British troops are operating to clear the Taleban from the huge hydroelectric reconstruction project. Kabul CID have already arrested two of the company’s local staff, while in the United States the FBI is investigating USPI accounts after it came under suspicion of fraud.

Local private security companies started to emerge during the 2005 provincial elections, explained a British contractor from a leading foreign security company based in Kabul. “Warlords had to disband and disarm their local militias in order to get on the candidate list. So they got round it by handing in a few old weapons, then produced a private security detail of their men, which they later expanded and have used since for trafficking drugs and weapons,” he said.

The Kabul Government turned its sights on the companies this year when guards from Khawar, the largest Afghan security company, beat up the Attorney-General in a road-rage incident north of the capital. Khawar’s boss, General Jurat, a former warlord and a big supplier of personnel to USPI, quickly found his business closed down while police investigations began on others of the city’s security companies.

A law regulating licensing, vetting and operational procedures for security firms is in the final stages of being approved. Most foreign companies are relieved at this new legislation, hoping that it will rid the system of its endemic corruption and confusion, as well as purging the vital niche market of criminal elements. Some of the recent raids, however, appear to have been the result of fiscal jealousy rather than legitimate action.

Witan Risk Management, set up in 2005 by two Afghan-American brothers and a British former SBS service-man, had its armoury of Kalashnikovs seized by police two weeks ago, despite all of its documentation being in order. It is now in danger of losing key foreign clients and believes that the move against it was designed by competitors in the Ministry of Interior to seize its business for themselves.

“If this Government wants people to come in and invest in the country they can’t just kill businesses overnight with no legal grounds,” said Watan’s chief executive officer, Rashid Popal.

In Mellat’s case, the bust seemed entirely justified. “Hey, get those two TV cameras round here so I can say something then send them away,” yelled General Paktiawal to his cops as he spun another of Mellat’s security guard around by the scruff of his neck, a prelude to giving the man a mighty kick. “I wouldn’t want to be seen on TV beating people.”

Secure employment?

10,000 Estimated number of private security guards in Kabul

59 Private security companies fully registered with the Government

3,600 Employed in Afghanistan by USPI, the firm with the biggest US Government contract

1,200 stationed in Afghanistan by the British company Armour Group UK

£750 Top rate paid to a private security guard for a day’s work

Sources: Afghan National Police; Security Management Magazine; US Department of Defense
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