Making Afghanistan More Dangerous

Under orders from President Hamid Karzai, over the next four months Afghanistan will be phasing out almost all foreign private security companies, a move meant to bring the country’s vast security apparatus under tighter government control.

It’s a laudable goal. But it also means that foreign aid workers, government officials and companies will have to rely instead for security on the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army — arguably two of the most corrupt and incompetent organizations in the country. Without a more effective replacement for foreign security companies, Mr. Karzai’s order could make the situation in Afghanistan significantly worse.

More than 30,000 private armed personnel are employed by more than 50 companies across Afghanistan. They provide security for the allied forces, the Pentagon, the United Nations mission, aid and nongovernmental organizations, embassies and Western news media. Foreign contractors also provide security for helicopter flights by the United States Agency for International Development and other civilian organizations.

None of these groups would feel safe relying on the national police or army for protection. A June report from the United States’ special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found that only 23 percent of the army and 12 percent of the national police are capable of operating without the supervision of allied forces.

It’s more than a matter of competency; there are many examples of police working for the government by day and the Taliban by night. Many of the rest of the officers are simply corrupt.

Consider an incident I experienced soon before my departure from Afghanistan, when I was driving through the Kote Sangi traffic circle in Kabul. A contingent of national police officers waved over my car, which was loaded with $250,000 in cash I was taking to Ghazni, a town about two hours away, to pay laborers and staff members from my aid organization.

I knew the drill; this was a shakedown, one of countless that occur every day in the country. It didn’t matter that I was a Western aid worker. The police wanted to search my car and haul off the cash.

I locked the doors and refused to get out. As the standoff went on, a crowd gathered. Kote Sangi is one of the busiest intersections in Kabul; hundreds of painters, carpenters and laborers wait there to be hired for day jobs amid the usual mayhem of donkeys, bicycles, sheep traders and mobile-phone-card hawkers.

A truck full of men from a foreign security company suddenly drove by and asked if I was all right. Taking advantage of their presence, I threatened to call in the American military, and the national police backed off. I drove on, conscious of the fact that they could have allies in the Taliban, waiting in ambush just outside town (fortunately, they did not).

Every aid worker has a story like this. Often, when you request that the police provide security, as I did in Logar Province earlier this year, they say it is too dangerous — though, as with most other administrative obstacles in Afghanistan, a commander will tell you that a direct payment to him may make the road “less dangerous.”

Without foreign security companies to turn to, aid workers and others will increasingly rely on domestic security companies, often controlled by local warlords — essentially a protection racket. As a Senate report released this summer shows, such companies will even pay insurgents to attack convoys to justify their services. And just try reporting them to the police.

In short, Mr. Karzai’s order will create a dangerous security vacuum in Afghanistan. Fortunately, there’s an alternative. One of the most effective ways to provide security at a local level would be to replicate across Afghanistan the community guard program that operates in Wardak Province.

Community guards are essentially local militias modeled on the Awakening Councils that turned the security tide in Iraq in 2007. The militias, often comprised of former insurgents paid to embed themselves in communities, supported American military efforts and provided reliable local security to aid workers and other organizations.

Last month, Mr. Karzai agreed to allow the creation of such groups across Afghanistan. But government officials made it clear that they would be strictly limited in size and power. Washington and its allies need to do everything they can to pressure Kabul to give the guard programs more control and resources.

Without such a complementary, aggressive effort to expand local militias, Mr. Karzai’s order to phase out foreign security contractors will cost lives, deter foreigners from working in Afghanistan and set back the drawdown of international troops.

Jason Thomas, an aid official in Afghanistan.