- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — The push by Afghanistan’s president to nationalize legions of private security guards before the end of March is encouraging corruption and jeopardizing multibillion-dollar aid projects, according to companies trying to make the switch.

President Hamid Karzai has railed for years against the large number of guns for hire in Afghanistan, saying private security companies skirt the law and risk becoming militias.

He ordered them abolished in 2009 and eventually set March 20 of this year as the deadline for everyone except NATO and diplomatic missions to switch to government-provided security.

Afghan officials are rushing to meet the deadline with the help of NATO advisers. But with less than six weeks to go, it’s likely that many components still will be missing on March 20. Even when everything falls into place, higher costs and issues of authority over the government guards will remain.

The change imperils billions of dollars of aid flowing into Afghanistan, particularly from the United States.

In a country beset by insurgent attacks and suicide bombings, the private development companies that implement most of the U.S. aid agency’s programs employ private guards to protect compounds, serve as armed escorts and guard construction sites.

On March 21, about 11,000 guards now working for private security firms will become government employees as members of the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF). They will be working in the same places with the same jobs, except they will answer to the Interior Ministry.

“We don’t want to have security gaps. This is really important to our customers and to us,” said Deputy Minister Jamal Abdul Naser Sidiqi, the head of the APPF.

It will happen, he said, because the presidential order says it has to.

Everyone is officially optimistic. “The APPF is now open for business,” a U.S. Embassy official said, speaking anonymously to discuss private agency contracts.

Still, many are worried that the entire plan could crumble.

Development contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development told the Associated Press that they were told explicitly not to discuss the changeover with reporters because media attention could endanger the delicate process. Everyone critical of APPF insisted on speaking anonymously for this article.

This month, the chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on national security, homeland defense and foreign operations wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressing concern that the APPF may not be ready to take over security for aid projects.

Even so, no one expects that there will be a visible problem on March 21.

“The guys who guard our gates today wear a certain baseball hat, and on the 21st of March they’ll come wearing a different uniform. It should be pretty seamless,” said Bill Haight, head of an infrastructure-building project run by Louis Berger Group and Black and Veach.

He said his projects are nearly finished, so he doesn’t expect many problems.

But companies with long-running projects are worried. New contracts and operating rules probably will still be in the works when the deadline arrives.

The APPF still has not signed a contract for any of the nearly 75 companies expected to switch over to government guards in March, said Noorkhan Haidari, the APPF business manager.



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