When Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to show who’s in charge he doesn’t do it by halves. His decree this week ordering all foreign and domestic PSCs operating in the country to disband by December is his most audacious power grab since he stole the Presidency last year– provided of course he really means to see it through.
Domestically, the PSC disbandment makes tremendous sense for Karzai. It will shift the balance of power away from warlords raising and operating private militias under the auspices of commercial security. These PSCs cum private armies have made millions servicing commercial and western military contracts (money which inevitably trickles down to the Taliban in the form of road taxes and other extortion schemes that keep the country’s off-the-books economy running). Come 2014, when Afghan forces are expected to take charge of the nation’s security, the last thing Karzai wants is to have dozens of well-funded private armies plotting his overthrow. In the interim, the PSC crackdown will also give Karzai a PR boost with voters ahead of Parliamentary elections, but this is more of a fringe benefit than a driving motive. After all, when it comes to listening to the electorate Karzai’s track record is less than stellar.
On the international front, the decree has reminded Karzai’s western allies that he can hold them to ransom whenever he chooses. Under the order, foreign security contractors will lose their residency permits and be confined to working inside foreign government and NGO compounds. Exterior security – which includes vehicle moves normally coordinated by close protection teams—will be handed over to the Afghan National Police. Pity the diplomats and aid workers. I certainly couldn’t sleep in a compound wondering whether the ANP standing watch outside my wall are Taliban infiltrators or undisciplined hacks who will turn tail and run the moment they’re attacked.
I imagine some foreign security companies in Afghanistan are flapping right now. I do hope they aren’t considering skirting the order by having their people on the ground work without weapons or armoured vehicles. That would be negligent and endanger both their employees and their clients.
The greater fallout of course is the impact the decree could have on NATO forces. There are not enough soldiers in Afghanistan to guard military supply convoys so the task (along with many other logistical roles) has been outsourced to PSCs. Under Karzai’s plan, these contracts would revert to the Afghan Interior Ministry. General Petreaus might want to consider appointing a special liaison in charge of ‘facilitating payments’ if he ever wants to see his kit again.
NATO shouldn’t let that happen nor should western governments entrust the security of their diplomats to the ANP. It could explain Karzai’s completely unrealistic deadline on the order (a convenient loophole to draw the transition out indefinitely). If it does turn out to be a bluff, NATO should still take heed. With a single pen stroke, Karzai has laid bare the vulnerabilities that result from outsourcing military tasks to the commercial sector. Sure, it may help governments in the short term by enabling them to hide the true financial and human costs of the war in Afghanistan. In the long-run however, outsourcing has the potential to cripple NATO’s entire military campaign.