If Carl Levin has his way, Afghanistan's booming private security industry will soon be a thing of the past. On Tuesday the Michigan Democrat, who chairs the powerful Senate armed services committee, threw his support behind a little-noticed plan announced by Hamid Karzai late last year to phase out the use of security companies within two years. During his inaugural address in November, the Afghan president said he intended for "Afghan security entities" to take over the work currently handled by local and international firms.
Given the Obama administration's go-for-broke counterinsurgency strategy, and the involvement of powerful local interests (including multiple members of the Karzai clan) in the security business, Karzai's timetable is viewed as unrealistic. But Levin, whose panel has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into security firms in Afghanistan, said the American and Afghan governments "need to take concrete steps to achieve that goal."
In prepared remarks, Levin criticized PSCs for undermining counterinsurgency efforts, including by setting back initiatives to train Afghan police and soldiers, a crucial piece of the Obama administration's strategy. Levin's comments, which were submitted into the congressional record but not delivered publicly, were included in his opening statement for an Afghanistan-themed hearing held by the armed services committee—one abruptly cut short on Tuesday (and rescheduled for Wednesday morning) after Gen. David Petraeus briefly fainted while fielding questions.
"Our reliance on private security contractors—who often draw on militia forces—is empowering local powerbrokers and warlords who operate outside the government’s control," Levin said. "As stated in one recent military analysis of Kandahar, 'what used to be called warlord militias are now Private Security Contractors.'"
The widespread hiring of private security contractors undermines the Afghan security forces’ ability to recruit and retain personnel. Some private security contractors working under Defense Department contracts, actively recruit those with ANA or ANP experience. Our Committee’s investigation into private security contractors in Afghanistan has revealed that they are frequently paid more than Afghan security forces. And a Department official recently testified that one reason for high attrition rates among Afghan National Civil Order Police officers, for example, is that "many of them are recruited by higher paying private security firms."
The threat that security contractors pose to mission success is not insignificant. In May 2010 the U.S. Central Command’s Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate reported that there were more than 26,000 private security contractor personnel operating in Afghanistan. Last week, General McChrystal acknowledged the problems arising from our contracting practices, specifically private security companies, and said that ISAF will be looking at what needs to be done. I hope that review will lay out a path to phase out the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan and to integrate those personnel into the Afghan National Security Forces.
Levin has put his finger on a major dillemma. NATO has become dependent on the services of local security providers, in many cases regional poobahs who command large militias. Matiullah Khan is a prime example. He is a former Afghan highway police commander who now has a large paramilitary force under his command in Oruzgan Province. His fighters both guard convoys (charging as much as $1,200 per truck) and fight alongside US special forces soldiers. Through Khan's ties to NATO, he has amassed wealth and power—despite the fact that he is effectively running an operation considered illegal by the Afghan government, which licenses security outfits. (Khan's operation is unlicensed nor is it a company per se.)
By funding operations like Khan's, as well as those that are said to have ties to the Afghan president's half-brother and Kandahar troublemaker Ahmed Wali Karzai (or AWK as he's locally known), American and international forces are creating a parallel power structure that competes with the central government they are trying to prop up with anti-corruption, rule of law, and other capacity building initiatives. It is hard to see the powerbrokers who NATO has effectively empowered talking kindly to any efforts to shut down the private secuirty private, let alone fully integrate their militias with the Afghan security forces. It would be nice to hear Gen. Petraeus' thoughts on the topic when Tuesday's postponed hearing resumes this morning.