Afghanistan's president is setting a four-month deadline for private security companies to cease operations in the country, his spokesman said Monday.
A presidential decree expected to be issued later Monday will detail the process through which the companies should cease operations, spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul.
President Hamid Karzai has said repeatedly in recent months that these companies undermine government security forces, creating a parallel security structure. Contractors perform duties ranging from guarding supply convoys to personal security details for diplomats and businessmen.
The imminent decree expedites action that Karzai had promised in his inauguration speech in November, when he said he wanted to close down both foreign and domestic security contractors within two years.
"Within four months, all private security companies will be disbanded," Omar said, but declined to go into detail before the decree is released.
Source of tension
The Interior Ministry has 52 security firms licensed, but some older contracts are still being completed by unlicensed firms, according to the U.S. military. There are about 26,000 private security contractors working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, 19,000 of them with the military, officials said.
As in Iraq, the conduct of security contractors in Afghanistan — particularly those working with U.S. forces — has been a source of tension, with complaints that they are poorly regulated and effectively operate outside local law.
A spokesman for the U.S. military, Maj. Joel Harper, said it supports Karzai's objective of eliminating private security companies but the transition requires "a deliberate process that recognizes the scale and scope of the issue."
The U.S. military set up a task force in June to tighten regulation and oversight of its security contractors, but its top official has stayed away from talk of deadlines.
"Since the Afghan army and the Afghan police are not quite at the stages of capability and capacity to provide all the security that is needed, private security companies are filling a gap," Brig. Gen. Margaret Boor said Monday before the announcement.
Boor said private security contractors can only be phased out as the security situation improves — a hard target given worsening security in recent months in areas of northern and central Afghanistan that had previously been relatively safe.
The majority of U.S. military contractors provide base security, though some also protect convoys, Harper said.
Karzai has said such responsibilities should fall to either soldiers or police.
Though the U.S. task force is new, Boor said it is already taking steps to improve oversight of security firms, including registering all contractors and ensuring they have the necessary qualifications and receive training on appropriate use of force.
NATO troops operate under firm rules spelling out conditions under which they can use deadly force.
Private security contractors in Afghanistan are subject to Afghan law, unlike the situation that persisted through most of the war in Iraq, where those working for the U.S. military were immune from prosecution by Iraqi authorities.
Contractors in Iraq lost their immunity when a U.S.-Iraqi security pact took effect Jan. 1, 2009. The move to tighten oversight followed Iraqi outrage over a Sept. 16, 2007, shooting in which 17 Iraq civilians were killed in a Baghdad square.
Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.
Contractors have been in the spotlight on several occasions in Afghanistan.
In 2009, a private security contractor hired to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was exposed for holding lurid parties flowing with alcohol, with guards and supervisors photographed in various stages of nudity. A U.S. government investigation also found Amorgroup employees frequented Kabul brothels.
In February, U.S. Senate investigators said the contractor formerly known as Blackwater hired violent drug users to help train the Afghan army and declared "sidearms for everyone" — even though employees weren't authorized to carry weapons. The allegations came as part of an investigation into the 2009 shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians by employees of the company, now known as Xe.
Last month police a crowd of angry Afghans shouted "Death to America" after an SUV driven by U.S. contract employees from DynCorp International was involved in a traffic accident that killed four Afghans.
Omar said greater regulation of security companies would not solve the problem.
"It's not about regulating the activities of the private security companies, it's about their presence and it's about the way they function in Afghanistan. And it's about the way they have developed into alternative forces," Omar said.
"The security companies have to go."
Meanwhile, an air strike in northern Afghanistan killed an al-Qaida leader who was planning suicide attacks, NATO-led forces said on Monday.
In another incident demonstrating the breadth of the Taliban's reach outside traditional strongholds in the south and east, a couple were stoned to death in public in northern Kunduz over an alleged illicit love affair, government officials said.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Abu Baqir, a man they described as a Taliban sub-commander and al-Qaida group leader, was killed when an alliance aircraft fired on a truck in Kunduz province.
The strike was called in after insurgents attacked a police station, ISAF said.
"The air weapons team killed two insurgents including Baqir, who was reportedly housing four potential suicide bombers for upcoming attacks on the city of Kunduz," it said in a statement.
An ISAF spokesman said no other details, such as the man's nationality, could be made available yet.
Mohammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz, said on Monday the Taliban had a day earlier publicly stoned to death a couple for adultery.
If confirmed, the executions would be the first of their kind by the Taliban in the area and follow a call last week by Afghan clerics for a return to sharia and capital punishments carried out under the Islamic law.
"The two were stoned to death in a bazaar of Dasht-e Archi district on the accusation of committing the act of adultery," Omar said.
The Taliban arrested the two, who were each engaged to be married to other people, at the request of their families after they tried to elope, said district police chief Hameed Agha.
Such punishments were commonplace under the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 but they have distanced themselves from the Kunduz executions, and the public flogging and execution of a woman in northwestern Badghis last week.