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Nobody guarding Afghanistan's guards Print
By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL - The Afghan government and its international partners are struggling to bolster the country's security forces, fighting the twin problems of boosting the numbers of the national army and trying to disband illegal armed groups.

Yet, an unmonitored, unregulated and unauthorized force is on the streets, not just under the noses of authorities but also hired and legitimized by those working on building the security sector.

As many as 28,000 armed personnel are hired by private security companies (PSCs), which have been operating as a lucrative business in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001, providing protection to foreigners and elite Afghans, guarding institutions, homes and individuals.

The number of armed contractors is more than half the Afghan National Army, which is estimated at between 35,000 to 50,000, and could be larger if the numbers of "irregular" forces are added to the ranks of legal contractors.

As a report on private security companies released recently by Swiss Peace points out, part of the problem of estimating the numbers of armed personnel of the PSCs is that in the absence of regulations there is little to distinguish between a professional firm that is in the business of providing security from a ragtag bunch of former militiamen who should have been demobilized but who have merely turned into hired guns.

Though at least eight PSCs have been closed down in the past few weeks, and the government is currently finalizing a regulatory framework for PSCs, six years of unfettered freedom to do as they please may make it difficult to bring the PSCs under control, and to implement the regulatory framework, especially one as complex as the one being drafted.

As he travels to work every day, Ahmed sees dozens of armed men. They hurry him on as he passes high walls of reinforced cement bags, stop him for questioning and block his entry not just into offices and houses but also roads where they have set up barricades - usually with a mixture of arrogance and rude behavior.

Ahmed's fault is that he is an ordinary Afghan, without arms, money or a large motorcar, (usually a sports utility vehicle), the three ingredients that constitute the password separating those who are protected from those who constitute the "threat".

Six years into nation-building, Afghans are very much second-class citizens in their own capital city, considered a potential threat unless proven otherwise, as the international community keeps its safe distance from the citizens of the country it is rebuilding. This makes the PSCs indispensable and has in part been responsible for the fact that despite considerable money and expense poured into the justice sector, they fall into the blind spot, neither disarmed as illegal armed groups, nor recognized as a licensed business bound by strict guidelines on the hiring of personnel, use of arms and a code of conduct.

Naeem, a resident of Kabul who works with an international non-governmental agency, sees little difference between the armed personnel of security companies he encounters every day and the fighters of earlier years. "They are the people who fought for money earlier," he said. "Now with their guns they enrolled in private companies to make money. They still think they rule. They cannot show their power towards foreigners so they show it towards Afghans. Their attitude is: if you are an Afghan we decide for you."

Brashness and an aggressive policing style apart, the lack of regulation presents a very real danger, and "contributes to a blurring among international PSCs and international military actors; international PSC staff and the international civilian community; local PSCs and illegal armed groups," said the Swiss Peace report.

The report, the first of its kind, which looks at both Angola and Afghanistan, argues that the lack of a regulatory framework creates distrust due to a lack of transparency, a sense of insecurity due to a perceived heavily armed presence of PSCs, distrust due to "bad" or criminal behavior and human-rights abuses by PSC staff, loss of trust in the state and its monopoly of the use of force.

On the positive side, its notes that the groups provide employment opportunities, especially for former militia fighters and demobilized soldiers.

Susanne Schmeidl, who co-authored the report, said there is no known account of the PSCs being used for active combat duties in Afghanistan. However, she pointed out that they are used for providing security to military compounds which may involve them in combat duties. Unauthorized though they are, they are also used extensively for training the army and police, poppy eradication and interrogation.

Schmeidl said that during her research she found a lot of "pushing of responsibility". She feels the international community has a responsibility since it is trying to build a legal state. "On the one hand you are trying to build a strong legal state and then you refuse to comply when the state tries to exert its power. On the one hand you are building it and on the other hand you are undermining it," she said describing the situation as "problematic".

Khaled, who works with a private business which doesn't use security firms, feels the larger than life presence of the private security companies means "the government's power is shown as being weak, making the ambit of the government's security forces smaller". Though he sees the private companies as a necessity, he feels they should be brought under government control. "Afghanistan is full of guns," he said, "and to do business you need guns too."

Zabi, his colleague, feels the companies provide employment for some but said there is anecdotal evidence of their criminality.

Schmeidl said some of the behavior of the use of private security resembles that of the mafia. Locals she interviewed complained that some contractors would go into an area, find the bad man or the strongman and pay him. Humayun, a student of Kabul University, feels they the PSCs should be regulated, registered and with an accounted numbers of arms and weapons, unlike now when "they are doing whatever they want".

A big question that remains is who will bell the cat. Current draft legislation suggests for example that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) would have to certify the clean criminal records of PSC Afghan staff. In the absence of criminal records in the country and the lack of capacity of the AIHRC that will prove impossible. Introducing legislation that cannot be implemented, as in Angola, the report points out, would defeat its purpose.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict situation in Punjab extensively.
 
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