- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN | The Afghan government is giving companies extensions ranging from a few weeks to 90 days to change from private security guards to a government-run force, officials said Sunday.

The reprieve comes just three days before the Wednesday deadline that the Afghan government had set for the majority of companies to start using government-provided security.

Private development companies have said the move is threatening billions in U.S. aid to the country because companies would delay projects or leave altogether because they didn’t feel safe using strictly local security over whose training and procedures they have little control.

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.

It’s been part of Mr. Karzai’s larger push for more control over the way his international allies operate in Afghanistan, as seen most recently in his call for NATO troops to pull back from village outposts and to hand over security responsibilities to Afghans more quickly.

Mr. Karzai said in 2009 that he wanted private security firms abolished and eventually set the March deadline for all companies except military or diplomatic facilities to use government guards.

The ban would effectively end the widespread presence of foreigners acting as security contractors, an industry that boomed after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The extensions did not appear to represent a change in policy as much as a recognition that the switch to government guards was taking longer than envisioned.

The process has been chaotic and has been weighed down by lengthy contract negotiations, making it appear unlikely in recent weeks that the Afghan Public Protection Force would be ready to take over for some 11,000 private guards by the deadline.

Companies that have yet to sign contracts are being allowed to continue to use private guards for a limited period of time, most ranging from 30 days to 90 days, said Jamal Abdul Naser Sidiqi, the head of the Afghan Public Protection Force.

Mr. Sidiqi argued that this does not amount to a major change as much as a “revised implementation plan.”

“This is a process. And on the 21st we are continuing our transition,” Mr. Sidiqi said. “We are just clarifying the deadline for every individual company.”

In February, Mr. Sidiqi told the Associated Press that the entire handover would be finished by March 21.

Several deals already have been signed.

So far, the Afghan Public Protection Force has signed 16 contracts with companies to provide security and licensed 14 “Risk Management Companies,” according to a NATO official who spoke anonymously to discuss the inner workings of an Afghan government program.

The Risk Management Companies essentially will act as go-betweens for companies and the government agency to help manage the guards, payments and help hold the Afghan guards to an international standard.

But Afghan officials have said there are about 75 companies they need to sign contracts with in order to complete the switchover and there were worries that holding to the Wednesday deadline would create security gaps.

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