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Karzai’s Call to Expel Contractors Poses Big Logistical Hurdles

August 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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According to a spokesman, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants all private security contractors out of Afghanistan within a matter of months. Judy Woodruff discusses the politics, economics and logistics with analysts Matthew Rosenberg and Doug Brooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the role of private security contractors in Afghanistan and why President Karzai may want to eliminate them, we turn to Matthew Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in Kabul, and Doug Brooks, the founder and president of the Association of the Stability Operations Industry. That’s the grade association of military service companies.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

I’m going to start with you, Doug Brooks. Help us understand again how essential the jobs are that these private companies perform, these security contractors.

DOUG BROOKS, president, Association of the Stability Operations Industry: Well, they perform a role that’s different from military. They are protective, so, they’re protecting a person, place or a thing. As was mentioned in the show, they protect diplomats, but they also protect warehouses. A lot of the reconstruction efforts are actually protected by security contractors.

They’re overwhelmingly Afghan, well over 90 percent Afghans, that do most of the work. But those are the people you want doing security in their own country. In the U.S., we have three times as many private security as we have public security. So, there’s going to always be a role for them.

And I think this — what’s happening here is very interesting and its going to be very tough to do, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Matthew Rosenberg, what would you add to that? I mean, who owns these companies? Most of the employees are Afghan nationals. Who — who owns these companies?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, The Wall Street Journal: You have got a variety of owners, from American companies that are based here, to Afghans who have close ties to the presidential palace. You have a whole range of — of owners.

And how this affects all them is unclear. Is President Karzai going to crack down on members of his own family who own private security companies? Is he going to crack down only on the foreign ones? He has, at times, complained about foreign security companies. Does this cover every single one, or is it just the American…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think a lot of people may not realize the close connections that exist between President Karzai and these companies and others in Afghanistan. How well-trained, Doug Brooks, are these individuals?

DOUG BROOKS: That’s a great question. And I think if you have the U.S. or you have a good client essentially hiring these companies, and they can request certain levels of training, you can actually have some fairly well-trained companies.

But, unfortunately, I think, in a lot of cases, the clients don’t pay attention to the quality. And that’s a big issue. In fact, one thing we have been pushing is third-party certification. Have an outside party come in and make sure these companies are trained the way you want to see them trained, and so you have some quality involved. But you’re not always seeing that. And that’s a problem. So, you see there are some very poorly trained companies that are operating there. And that’s something that I think gives Karzai some traction with what he’s saying.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Matt Rosenberg, before we talk specifically about why President Karzai wants to do away with them, why aren’t they already in the military? What is it in — what do they get out of working for a private company, rather than going to work for the Afghan military?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Well, you know, both the Afghan military and the Afghan police have been — it’s been a slow process building them. And they are pumping out soldiers and police as quickly as they can. But private security work is paid well. There have been…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Better than the Afghan military, police?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Often it has for some — for the better-trained ones, certainly.

You know, there are also people who probably don’t want to be in the army and police, who weren’t recruited to be in the army and police, who — who…


MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s dangerous. It’s far more dangerous to be an Afghan soldier trying to fight the Taliban, who is probably underequipped, who his leadership has issues. There are training issues. To be an Afghan policeman is to be a target — to be a security guard, not so much. You could end up in Kabul guarding a private home.

The road convoys, you know, those are dangerous, but there are also questions of, do some of these companies pay the Taliban not to attack the convoys? But being a security guard is a far safer job than being a soldier or a policeman in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You would agree with that?

DOUG BROOKS: It varies from job to job. I know some of the convoy security can be quite dangerous, but, in general, I would say that is probably accurate and really depends what you’re protecting. Many of them are protecting NGO warehouses, things like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are non-government organizations?

DOUG BROOKS: Non-governmental organizations, many of the people doing the reconstruction. That’s generally fairly safe. But, as we have seen in recent weeks, that can also be quite dangerous at times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Matt Rosenberg, what do we think is behind what Karzai’s office is saying? And, by the way, we want to be clear. They haven’t made this announcement or issued this decree yet. This is being talked about by a spokesman so far.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I mean, in the last few weeks, we have had another round of kind of the Karzai government pressing back on anti-corruption efforts that are led by the U.S. and its European allies. One of his top aides was recently arrested in a corruption case. Karzai then moved to take control of the anti-corruption task forces, which were U.S.- and British-trained, that had done that, infuriating U.S. officials.

And this seems like it’s coming right at a time where you have got another one of these kind of Karzai vs. his U.S. backers kind of rounds on anti-corruption. And, suddenly, he’s going after the private security companies, which he’s often complained are fueling corruption, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is there something about this time right now?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: There’s also an election coming up. There’s parliamentary elections coming up September 18. This plays to the crowd. This definitely plays to — to Afghans who want to see more — more Afghan-led stuff, who want to see a more independent government, and who don’t like the U.S., where sentiment is not in our favor.

DOUG BROOKS: This kind of threat definitely puts a pressure then on, I think, the coalition, because if these — all these security contractors all over the country are forced to leave, and there’s a vacuum, there’s nobody there to replace them, I mean, that undermines the mission in a big way. So, can I see this — that this is going to cause a lot of angst here. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s my question. What does happen? If President Karzai is serious, if these security companies are banned in the next four months, by the end of the year, what does that mean?

DOUG BROOKS: It would be…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s almost inconceivable. They do so many things. And to fill maybe the 25,000 to 30,000 security jobs, right now to have the army do that, which is hard-pressed enough to fill its own role, just seems impossible. You have everybody, from the coalition to aid groups, you know, NGOs, freaking out today, wondering, what are we going to do? They guard — they guard all our missions. They — every piece of work we do, we need these guys, and we can’t do it without them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Doug Brooks, what’s the reaction inside the contractor community?

DOUG BROOKS: Well, it’s kind of wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were on the phone a lot today.

DOUG BROOKS: Absolutely. And, you know, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on with this. And, right now, it’s kind of a wait-and-see. This may just be a political ploy or a power play, as has been discussed. That’s quite possible.

I think it ‘s — you know, right now, I mean, this has sort of been said before. Nothing has happened. So, we’re kind of waiting to see in the meantime. So, you know, I mean, from our perspective, we want to kind of keep our noses clean. It’s real important to sort of improve the quality within the industry to make sure there’s no excuses essentially to do more damage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the expectation, Matt Rosenberg, that this, that Karzai is likely to make good on this threat? I mean, some people are seeing it as a threat.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: I’m not sure what people — I’m not sure what anybody expects right now. The deadline certainly — the deadline of January 1 certainly seems difficult. That would be an understatement. How to make good on — how to make good on this is — you know, this is — his entire elite is protected by these people as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His entire elite.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: His entire elite is protected by private security people as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying to me a minute before — a minute ago, before we went on the air, that, if this — if the ban were to happen, that you might have people running around with these skills, with the skills that many of these individuals have without a job?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Exactly. I mean, the training mission that NATO and the U.S. has right now to train Afghan soldiers cannot absorb 25,000 to 30,000 people on January 1. This is not going to happen. And all these people are suddenly out of work. What are they going to do? Crime is an issue there. There’s an insurgency.


MATTHEW ROSENBERG: You don’t need people — you don’t need more people with these skills on the market.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be watching and waiting and seeing what comes out of Kabul.

Matt Rosenberg, Doug Brooks, thank you both.

DOUG BROOKS: Pleasure.