The big news around the traps at the moment is Karzai’s announcement that all PSC (local and international) have until 1 Jan 11 to disband and, for the internationals, quit Afghanistan. This is due to the (justifiable) perception that PSCs are running amok, involved in bribery and extortion, are in league – to varying degrees – with the Taliban and are damaging ISAFs counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy.
At the outset let me say that my company is held up as an example of how a transparent, compliant and professional PSC should operate in providing convoy security to Host Nation Trucking (HNT) contractors. If it were not I wouldn’t be working for it. However, as a PSC, we are lumped in with the local firms that are nothing more than armed militia for warlords such as Ruhullah (who plies his trade between Kabul and Kandahar) and Matiullah Kahn (who commands a 2,000 men in Uruzgan where nothing moves without his approval and his payment of between USD1000 and USD3000 per truck).
These, and other warlords, regularly extort ‘special payments’ or ‘security payments’ (call them what you will) from HNT contractors to ensure convoys move through their areas safely and largely unhindered. It is widely known that the protection racket also extends to the Taliban who use the warlords as their ‘collectors’ – adding to the already massive sum the insurgents rake in every year from its links to opium production and drug running. It is no coincidence that those HNT contractors who refuse to pay the protection money suffer the greatest number of incidents along the route – these incidents being, according to a large body of evidence, initiated by the warlords’ own people or by the insurgents at the warlord’s behest.
Why are my company’s convoys being contacted and ambushed almost every day? Why are we losing guards to ‘enemy’ fire at a KIA rate per head of force higher than that of ISAF? Because we and our client don’t pay the baksheesh.
As to the deleterious effect PSCs are having on ISAF’s COIN strategy, it doesn’t take a policy wonk from some Washington-based think tank to work out the reason. When the central plank to any successful COIN strategy is winning the confidence, trust and loyalty of the local populace, it is hardly going to be a ‘good thing’ when armed thugs known to be escorting convoys for the security forces (and, vicariously, the government), smacked out on hash and heroin, fire indiscriminately into villages as they pass, pull over civilians and the very tanker drivers they are charged to protect and extort cash and generally act in all sorts of illegal and unsavoury ways with apparent impunity. The very existence of these local PSCs, and the warlords who have established a parallel security apparatus to that of the legitimate government, is counter-intuitive to what ISAF are trying to achieve here.
A spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior is reported to have said today that, with the PSCs gone, the ANA and ANP will step in to fill the gap and are more than capable of doing so. Well, Mr Minister, I have news for you. If you think the ANA and, in particular, the ANP aren’t deeply and irretrievably corrupt from the local to the highest level, then you need to get out of your office more. While I have a lot of respect for many of the ANA and ANP I am in contact with, even the good ones think nothing of putting out their hand for a ‘special payment’ of one sort or another whenever they have the chance. Putting them in charge of the protection of a commodity that is as valuable as fuel is in this place is, well, just plain nuts.
So, where does this all leave me? I still, proudly, work for one of the best (if not the best) PSC in Afghanistan. I’m not ashamed to be a private security contractor for such a company. I agree that Karzai needs to disband the warlords and their militias (good luck with that, by the way, Mr President) as they are a threat to the stability of his already fragile government and his already frayed credibility. But a ‘catch-all’ statement about disbanding all PSCs (including us and the ones like us who do good work for ISAF) just hasn’t been thought out (not least because of the timeline) and will, if it comes to pass, come back to haunt Karzai or whoever sits in his seat in the future.
And that’s my tuppence worth….