- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan will extend a deadline for private security firms to disband through early next year, the president said Wednesday in a face-saving compromise that could preserve foreign reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars.

The announcement by Hamid Karzai’s office follows days of intense negotiations between top-level foreign diplomats and Afghan officials amid concern the ban would force contractors working on development projects to stop work on many projects due to security concerns.

Even Secretary of State Hilary Clinton weighed in with a phone call asking Mr. Karzai to reconsider his original Dec. 17 deadline.

Mr. Karzai’s office said in a statement that the deadline would be extended for at least two months while a committee of officials reviews the decree to ban private guards and comes up with a timetable for phasing out the companies. It was not clear whether different organizations will be given different deadlines.

The issue has been the latest thorn in relations between the president and his Western backers. Mr. Karzai claims the private guards are undermining his nation’s army and police and says Afghan security forces should take on the job of providing protection for the aid workers. Western officials support Mr. Karzai’s initiative but argue that the hand-over must be carefully planned so projects are not disrupted.

Shortly before the president made his announcement, U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry issued a statement applauding the decision.

“We welcome the government’s announcement of a new committee under the ministry of interior to develop an implementation plan for President Karzai’s approval,” he said in a statement.

The ban had threatened NATO security convoys as well as development and reconstruction projects. Agencies have said they would be unable to insure their workers if they had to replace private security contractors with Afghanistan’s largely poorly trained and undisciplined armed forces.

With only seven weeks to go until the deadline, Afghan officials said it was still unclear where the government would have sufficient police and army troops from to replace the contractors. Most of the country’s armed forces are busy fighting the insurgency.

There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 private security guards working in Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai’s office said the committee will submit a suggested timetable to the president on Nov. 15. Once that is approved, each organization will have a maximum of 90 days before the designated dissolution date. The government will then assume responsibility for providing security for the development projects, the statement said.

That means all private security firms can continue operating at least through mid-February.

“Recognizing the importance of maintaining the continuous delivery of critical development projects and programs funded by the international community, the committee will prepare a timetable for the disbandment,” the statement from Mr. Karzai’s office said.

The review committee will be led by the Afghan interior ministry and will include members from NATO forces and major donors.

The government will continue to disband illegal private security companies and road convoy security companies, according to the statement.

The U.N.’s top representative in Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura said the international community supports the Afghan government’s stance on private security companies.

He said the international community is committed to a “fixed timetable” and “must respond promptly to President Karzai’s long-standing concerns about the conduct of private security countries.”

Mr. Karzai says the private security firms commit human rights abuses, pay protection money to the Taliban and undercut the country’s national security forces by offering higher wages and better living conditions. Many are owned by individuals with powerful political family connections.

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