- Associated Press - Sunday, October 24, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday asked for a list of national aid projects that need protection by private security guards, potentially signaling his wish to reach a compromise over the status of security companies in Afghanistan and safeguarding foreign aid projects worth billions of dollars.

Mr. Karzai spent the day meeting with his ministers and top-level foreign diplomats as they tried to compromise between his aim of disbanding private security companies by the end of the year and protecting foreign-funded aid projects threatened by insurgent attacks.

“The list of the big projects and their security needs should be given to the Afghan government, and the Afghan government will assess and make a decision,” Mr. Karzai was quoted as saying in a government press release. “These talks will continue.”

Many contractors and aid groups said they would have to shut down or suspend projects if they could not be exempted from the ban. The move also alarmed diplomats, who say winning hearts and minds requires that reconstruction and aid projects follow military successes against the Taliban.

An official from the U.S. Agency for International Development said his organization had spent nearly $10 billion on development in Afghanistan by the end of 2009 and had budgeted $4.2 billion to spend this year.

But if no solution was available to provide security for their contractors, he said, that target might not be met. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing.

Mr. Karzai repeatedly has said that reliance on private contractors has set up parallel security forces and weakened the authority of the state. He wants to replace private security contractors with state security forces, and despite raising the possibility of exemptions, the press release reaffirmed that his overall aim was to close down the security companies.

“I raised this problem five years ago to our international friends,” he was quoted as saying. “Once again, I raised this problem three years ago. … Now the Afghan government is committed to disbanding private security companies.”

But aid groups say the notoriously corrupt and poorly trained police cannot protect them from kidnappings or attacks and they will not be able to insure their workers.

The government has said that its priority is to disband any illegal private companies and those used to guard military supply convoys. However, many of the companies working on internationally funded development and infrastructure projects now will need to start pulling international staff out of dangerous areas if they’re going to close down operations in time for the deadline, according to a Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give out the information.

Diplomatic staff and their compounds, as well as military supply depots, have been granted an exemption from the ban.

In a separate development, a NATO service member was killed Sunday by a bomb in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said in a statement. It did not provide further details.

NATO and Afghan forces have been expanding their presence aggressively in southern Afghanistan in recent months in an attempt to wrest control of the region from insurgents. Residents say pockets of control have been established, but gun battles and bomb attacks are still a daily occurrence.

Sunday’s death brings the number of international force members killed this month to 49.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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