President Hamid Karzai’s plan to shut down private security forces in Afghanistan has many military contractors and assorted peace-builders in a panic. But some humanitarian aid workers in the country contend that a ban isn’t such a bad idea.
For years, non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan have condemned the militarization of humanitarian work, and have struggled to define a role that is distinct from the armed, for-profit development contractors in the conflict zone. Yet usually, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), contractors, humanitarians and development entrepreneurs have all been lumped together under the generic “aid worker” rubric. The Afghan government’s planned prohibition on private security companies (PSCs) could change that, helping to differentiate the humanitarians from other forms of development work.
Foreign for-profit development contractors have threatened to pull out of Afghanistan, since the August decree issued by Karzai would prevent them from relying on private security companies for protection. Instead, they would have to depend on the Afghan National Police to provide security. The only exceptions would be for military bases and diplomatic missions.
The ban was originally scheduled to take effect on December 17. But on October 27, Karzai agreed to push back the implementation deadline by two months. Karzai’s administration has come under intense pressure from Washington to relent on the ban.
Representatives of various humanitarian aid organizations are not worried by the looming ban to anywhere near the same extent as are the for-profit contractors. Many have long been living with high risk in order to deliver their services. Some even say the demise of private security companies would be beneficial.
“To the extent that it [the ban] helps to de-militarize the environment and to the extent that it reinforces the government’s monopoly on the use of force, I think ultimately it would be a positive thing,” Nic Lee, director of ANSO (Afghanistan NGO Safety Office), a non-profit humanitarian project that monitors safety conditions for the NGO sector, told EurasiaNet.org.
“There is no type of armed action that is conducive to humanitarian activity,” Lee continued. “So the less armed activity you have is always going to improve humanitarian space and humanitarian access.”
Many aid workers say they have a moral duty to work without armed protection in order to maintain their neutrality in a conflict zone. Of the 2,000 Afghan and 360 international NGOs operating across Afghanistan, “less than six use the services of a PSC, most commonly to provide unarmed guards at offices and homes,” according to ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), an NGO umbrella organization.
In a joint statement issued with ANSO on October 25, ACBAR sought to distance the non-profit NGO community from for-profit contractors, emphasizing “the ban on PSCs will have no negative impact on aid delivery by the vast majority of humanitarian NGOs.”
While NGOs rely on the communities where they work to ensure their safety, the for-profit “development contractors” often depend on PSCs. Donors support their work as part of NATO’s counter-insurgency strategy, thus bringing them between the military and Taliban militants, and also muddying the waters between non-profit humanitarian work and for-profit development.
These private development contractors receive the bulk of donor money flowing into Afghanistan largely from the US government’s development arm, USAID. Thus, major donors like USAID have been scrambling for a way to keep their “implementing partners” in the country. Some large USAID contractors like DAI (Development Alternatives, Inc.) have said they would have to close down some projects, if the ban is implemented. Other private development companies have complained to the US Embassy that their employees “will vote with their feet.”
Donors suggest that their ongoing discussions with the Afghan government will lead to a compromise. But Karzai, despite delaying implementation of the ban, still seems determined to lock private security firms out of Afghanistan, calling them a menace to stability.
Employing development contractors is a fundamental part of Gen. David Petraeus’ much-touted counter-insurgency strategy. Petraeus, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, is said to be lobbying Karzai’s government for an exception to the ban that covers a wide array of peace-building activities.
Even the United Nations is reviewing its programs to assess the ban’s potential impact. With UNAMA (the UN’s umbrella organization in Afghanistan) playing an overt political role, the mission has suffered increasing attacks. An attack on a UN guesthouse in Kabul last October left six international UN workers dead. On October 24, UN security repelled an attack on a UN guesthouse in Herat, killing four armed insurgents. The UN hopes its own security forces will be exempted from the new rule.
Not all donors use private security companies. The Indian Embassy, which has suffered two massive suicide bombings in the past three years, uses a combination of ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police, an Indian government paramilitary organization) and Afghan National Police to guard the embassy, as well as its projects.
The Canadian government also indicated that a ban would have a minimal impact on aid operations that it sponsors. “Most of our development assistance implementing partners do not use private security firms,” a spokeswoman for the Canadian Embassy said, adding that Ottawa had sought an implementation plan that would allow the international community to remain in Afghanistan while respecting the goals of the presidential decree.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.