The Real Story Behind the Ban on Contractors
By Matthieu Aikins
August 9 was shaping up to be just another scorching summer day in Kabul when a journalist friend tipped me off that the private security firm Watan Risk, whose operations were run by the logistics convoy warlord par excellence Commander Ruhollah, would be having a press conference at noon at the Intercontinental Hotel. "Watan?" I asked, slightly incredulous. Afghanistan's most notorious homegrown private security company wasn't exactly known for its press relations.
But I went. And there sitting at the front of the conference room, with a thicket of microphones in front of him, was Commander Ruhollah himself looking ill at ease in a suit and tie. He got straight to the point; Ruhollah reminded the audience of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's harsh criticism of companies such as his in a speech the day before. Watan Risk had caused civilian casualties, Ruhollah admitted. And citing pressure from the media, the commander announced that he was resigning and shutting down Watan's operations escorting logistics convoys for international forces in the south.
What could explain Ruhollah's sudden decision? I could think of only explanation: Given Ruhollah's tight links with the president and his brother, the powerful regional governor Ahmed Wali Karzai, I was certain that this had been arranged in consultation with them. Perhaps something big was about to go down, and Ruhollah's move was pre-emptive.
Earlier that summer, I had heard rumors in Kandahar City of a big deal involving the Interior Ministry, Ruhollah, and another major private security commander, Matiullah Khan. The prize was a contract to take over security for the southern portions of Highway 1, which runs from Kabul to Kandahar and onwards to Helmand and Herat. My guess was that Karzai was going to push some kind of private security reform through the Ministry of the Interior, and that he wanted Ruhollah to position himself accordingly ahead of time. "He's telling Ruhollah to get out of the way of the bus," I said to a friend.
Eight days later, on August 17, President Karzai dropped a surprisingly drastic bombshell: he issued a decree banning all private security companies by Dec. 17. It was a baffling move and impossible to implement, but it was one that put him on the right side of Afghan public opinion, and also hoisted the internationals who had been complaining about corrupt commanders on their own petard. The ban -- which threatened to wipe out an industry vital to military logistics and development contractors -- became one of the summer's biggest stories. Press coverage, however, focused on the ban's impact on foreigners -- a red herring that obscured a far more important angle to the story.
The private security decree was really about the worsening relations between Karzai and the West, most particularly as a result of the United State's ham-fisted attacks this year on the patronage networks that have become essential to Karzai's control in Afghanistan. The most notable of these was when two specialized police units, mentored by U.S. and British forces, and insulated from political pressure by their relative isolation from the rest of the Interior Ministry, raided the New Ansari hawala money exchange in January and arrested a key Karzai aide on charges of bribery in July. Karzai struck back, weakening the independence of Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission meant to oversee allegations of fraud in the August presidential election, forcing the resignations of then-Afghan National Directorate of Security head Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and firing the deputy attorney general -- reformists who were seen as too close to the West and its anti-corruption efforts.
Karzai's private security decree is intimately linked to this narrative. Since January, Washington has been investigating U.S. support for private security companies and warlords that contribute that fuel corruption and the insurgency. An FBI probe, a blockbuster Congressional report, and a specialized military task force, have all investigated US military contracting with the aim of reducing U.S. support for certain firms.
Ironically, Western countries now find themselves in the position of having to push back against private security reform in order to secure a delay in the ban. It now looks like the decree will be so far relaxed from its original bravado as to allow private security companies to continue their work through their current contracts. With few exceptions, the impact of the ban on the commander networks that compose private security companies, and how they might be rearranged more firmly under Karzai, has not been explored.
Karzai turned the tables on his foreign backers, ensuring that private security reforms remain on his terms. This turn of events is a resounding "check" in a chess match that has been played out, and is still being played out, between Karzai and his international patrons.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who reports on Afghanistan for Harper's Magazine, the Walrus, Popular Science, and others.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images