President Hamid Karzai agreed Wednesday to push back his deadline for kicking private security guards out of Afghanistan, a concession the U.S. and other countries considered essential to prevent billions of dollars worth of development and reconstruction projects from shutting down.
The international community supports the idea of getting rid of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 guns-for-hire in the war-torn country, but not by the Dec. 17 deadline Karzai had set. International officials spent several days in intense negotiations with the president, and even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in with a phone call asking him to reconsider.
Some security contractors still could be barred from working in Afghanistan by Dec. 17 under Karzai's revised plan, but others will get extensions until at least February.
Karzai has complained for years that many private guards 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. Nations providing aid to Afghanistan, however, question whether Afghan security forces — poorly trained, rife with corruption and stretched thin fighting insurgents — will be able to take on the work of the private guards.
Contractors say they will not be able to find insurers if they are forced to give up private security. Some have already been winding down projects early because they feared they would not be able to protect their workers.
A statement from the palace said a committee led by the interior ministry will review private security contractors used at development sites. The panel will include representatives from NATO forces and major donors.
"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 Karzai's office said.
The panel is to report back to Karzai on Nov. 15, but details are sketchy about what happens after that.
A Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said that after receiving the report, Karzai will decide which private security outfits protecting development projects must be shut down by the original Dec. 17 deadline and which ones will have up to 90 days to disband. Depending on when Karzai makes his decision, the 90-day extension could expire as early as February. Then, the Afghan government will assume responsibility for providing security for the projects.
"We were expecting a compromise," said Haroun Mir, the director of the Kabul-based Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "This is face-saving for President Karzai because in Afghan eyes he can't be seen as a weak president."
He said the president's decree is tinged with nationalism, allowing Karzai to be seen as fighting for the rights of Afghans against foreigners.
"This is a technical problem but the president made it into a political issue," Mir said.
Karzai and the international community have had strained relations in recent months about allegations about corruption within his government, as well as the government's slow progress in expanding its influence beyond Kabul to reclaim areas where the international forces have routed the Taliban.
Security contractors, meanwhile, have been in trouble for everything from paying protection to the Taliban to killing unarmed Afghan civilians. Two former workers for the company formerly known as Blackwater — now Xe — are charged in federal court in Virginia for a double shooting and the wounding of another unarmed civilian.
The majority of contractors, however, are Afghans, and some have powerful family connections to members of the government or insurgency.
Minister Bismullah Mohammadi said the ministry already had dissolved 26 of 54 private security contractors operating illegally and had seized 26,000 weapons. Diplomatic installations and residences are exempt from the ban, but roads and convoys eventually will be secured by Afghan security forces, Mohammadi said.
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said he was happy that the development projects were being given a brief reprieve.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us with this committee," Eikenberry said. "It's about coming up with arrangements so that security can be provided."
Eikenberry and the U.N.'s top representative in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, reiterated their support for Karzai's decision to ban the private guards — words aimed at mending fissures that the issue made in the international community's relations with the embattled Afghan president.
"This is a fundamental issue for the people of Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "For President Karzai, this is about the exercise of sovereignty in this country. It's about the monopoly of the use of force. It's about having the responsibility for and having authorities over any armed elements of this country."