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US concerned over Afghan ban on security contractors

By Barbara Starr and Jill Dougherty, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: One development organization has already started shutting down 330 projects
  • Development organizations worry what a ban on private security guards will mean
  • U.S. officials are talking to the Karzai government about the ban
  • It could be blow to the counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. officials believe

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Some U.S.-funded development organizations, fearing a worst-case scenario as a result of the Afghan government's ban on private security guards, are beginning to implement contingency plans that could result in those organizations' pulling out of the country, U.S. officials tell CNN.

The Afghan government decree set a December 17 deadline for unregistered companies to shut down.

"Promises are going to have to be broken, promises to leading, brave local officials in Afghanistan," said Steven O'Connor, the spokesman for a U.S.-based development organization.

One senior U.S. official, while noting that "no one is on planes headed for Dubai," added that aid organizations "are working with a worst-case scenario in mind."

The U.S. government and NATO officials are urgently talking to President Hamid Karzai and other officials about what they see as the potentially disastrous ramifications of the decision, several sources told CNN.

"We're not aware that any U.S.-funded projects have stopped operating, but without clarity our partners are making plans for the possibility they are unable to continue their work here," said Caitlin Hayden, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Kabul.

O'Connor said his organization, Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland, has already started to shut down 330 development projects in Afghanistan worth $21 million. The organization uses the security company Edinburgh International to protect its employees in the field. It is affected by the ban, even though it complies with all Afghan laws and is regulated, O'Connor said.

Development Alternatives is the organization that Linda Norgrove worked for. The British citizen was kidnapped late last month and then was killed during a failed attempt to rescue her on October 8.

The organization's "Local Government and Community Development" projects operate in dangerous contested areas where Afghan government forces are fighting the Taliban. They include projects focused on building schools, roads, clinics, canals and other work that local communities define as important.

"We have to put the wheels in motion now," O'Connor told CNN. "We can't just turn off the lights. We have to take measures in order to carry out an orderly shut-down."

Several United States and coalition officials have told CNN that discussions with the Afghan government on how to resolve the matter are expected to take place in the next few days.

A senior Afghan official confirmed to CNN that the president does not intend to grant an exemption to the security contractor ban for development firms, even though it could mean development and aid organizations leaving Afghanistan.

U.S. officials feel shutting down development operations could have serious implications for the U.S. civilian strategy in Afghanistan and would affect not only U.S. organizations but also European and international groups such as the World Bank. "A lot depends on these organizations," the U.S. official said, "and it is for the benefit of the Afghan people."

The NATO alliance would be extremely reluctant to extend its security umbrella to private development efforts, and it is not clear the Afghan government would allow that to happen, officials say.

Hayden emphasized the United States supports Karzai's decision to end permission for many private security contractors in Afghanistan. But she added, "As a matter of priority, we are working with the Afghan government and international community to fully implement the decree. An area of specific focus is the protection of development implementing partners, recognizing their stated need for clarity in order to safely continue their operations."

The Karzai ban does grant exemptions to private security firms that guard the interior security perimeter of embassies; escort foreign diplomats and protect diplomat residences; or protect international military bases and weapon storage facilities. It not yet clear what would happen to any private contractors that assist in moving military goods around the country.

Some groups could curtail their actions in Afghanistan, working only in Kabul where it is safer, but those that work across Afghanistan might pull out Western employees or leave the country altogether.

The projects that Development Alternatives is shutting down employ 800 Afghans and "scores" of international workers, O'Connor said. The Afghans will lose their jobs; it is not clear yet what will happen to the others. Some, O'Connor said, may be transferred to regional centers such as Dubai for further assignments

Development Alternatives' work in Afghanistan is too dangerous to continue without security. Ten security guards have been killed in the past year in insurgent attacks and bombings while they protected the organization's employees, O'Connor said.

"The truth is we can't operate without them, they are vital," he said. Right now the organization is doing some "hard thinking," he said, about how to protect its employees in Afghanistan.

The organization's projects are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development; Development Alternatives is the "implementing partner." The overall five-year program is worth a total of $350 million.

Since the decree was issued August 17, the U.S. State Department has been expressing its concern to the Afghan government that the ban should be implemented in a way that would keep essential operations going, U.S. officials say.

"This was our message to the Afghan government from the beginning that it must be implemented effectively so it doesn't end up being counterproductive," another official said.

U.S. officials would not speak for attribution, citing diplomatic sensitivity.

From the beginning there has been confusion about how the ban would be implemented, and 10 days ago, officials told CNN, the U.S. side sought "clarifying language" from the Afghan government. "But it wasn't clear enough," an official said.

In some cases, private security guards were disarmed on Afghan roads even before the ban went into effect. That, said the official, "got the agencies and implementing partners worried."

Some of the organizations have insurance concerns as well, because insurance companies are reluctant to issue policies to anyone without adequate protection.

"The Afghan government may not have realized the full implications of the ban," another U.S. official told CNN. He said U.S. officials and the Afghan government will be meeting over the next few days to try to clarify the issue and, this official said, "we are still optimistic that we can work this through."

Karzai's decision to shut down unregistered private security companies centers on accusations that some of the companies have been involved in criminality, alienating the Afghan people, undermining the credibility of the state and creating a parallel economy.

Some trained police abandon their jobs to make more money working for the private companies. Two-thirds of the companies are unlicensed and the issue has been festering for at least five years, a U.S. official said.

"It was bad, but we never did anything constructive about it," he said. "President Karzai has forced the issue."

Karzai said private security firms are a risk to the national security and sovereignty of Afghanistan. Afghan forces, he said, will take over some of the security tasks.

This story was reported by Jill Dougherty in Washington and Barbara Starr in Kabul Afghanistan.