By Will Grant
The Afghan Public Protection Force is proud to announce that on Thursday of this week it signed its first contracts for work. Just in time for the springtime violence that comes to Afghanistan every year.
The contracts give the APPF responsibility of security operations for three companies doing reconstruction work in Afghanistan. Their signing represents one more step toward what President Hamid Karzai has wanted for years: Afghans providing security in Afghanistan.
In fact, Karzai has mandated—though not without room for exception—that by March 20 of this year, the APPF will be responsible for the security of all reconstruction work in Afghanistan. But with that deadline less than two weeks away, such a handover isn’t very likely.
“I would say that, no, the March 20 date is not realistic,” says David Isenberg, a long-time journalist covering the world of private security contracting. “But [the signing of the contracts] is one of those things that every body’s watching with rapt attention to see if it’s a harbinger, or weathervane, of where private security contracting will go in Afghanistan.”
The proposed withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014 and a general effort to reduce our presence there clearly points to a diminishing market in Afghanistan, not just for armed security guards but for thousands of other contractors as well. The question is: What will the order-keeping force look like when we leave and can it handle the job?
The APPF signed contracts with International Relief and Development, Louis Berger – Black and Veatch, and AFGS. Some of the current security guards will remain in place to ease the handover.
“We welcome this security transition as a natural step for Afghanistan,” said Bill Haight for Louis Berger -Black and Veatch in a press conference.
But not all companies are as excited about the prospect of relying on Afghans for their security. Not only is personal safety an issue, but also is the possibility that the new way doing things may violate standards that could potentially bring about Federal suspension or debarment.
That’s not to say the safety issue isn’t significant. It is, especially in light of the recent “green on blue” attacks. The attacks by Afghan-uniformed men have been on the rise: Two in 2007 and 2008, six in 2009, 13 in 2010, and 21 in 2011. Afghans mistaken for friendlies have killed about 70 coalition service men and women since May 2007.
But just because the job environment gets more dangerous, that doesn’t mean there will be fewer security contracting jobs.
“I don’t think these ‘green on blue’ attacks will slow down the [security contracting] companies,” Isenberg says. “I think they’ll keep slogging on and look at it from a business point of view. They’ll stay there until it’s no longer profitable or until Karzai says, ‘That’s it, you’re out of here.’”
From a long-distance perspective, like Isenberg’s from Washington, D.C., it’s business as usual. The companies are there to make money, and the security personnel know what they’re getting into.
But handing an automatic rifle to an Afghan trainee and trusting him with your life is a different story.
“The biggest concern we had training these guys was we couldn’t trust them,” says a contractor who was a firearms instructor for the Afghan Border Police. “When we took these guys to the range, at least one of us would be doing nothing but overwatch on the firing line in case anyone got any ideas.”
The contractor, who wished to have his name omitted, says little that inspires confidence in the Afghan security apparatus. He was in Northern Afghanistan from January through May of last year and saw more than 1,000 trainees come through in eight-week rotations.
Even within the training camp, the instructors were always armed and never went anywhere individually. There was no way to background check or vet the recruits, and the stories of ‘inside jobs’ by Afghans made the contractors skeptical.
Most of all, training these men required a paradigm shift. They weren’t your typical Western law enforcement recruits; they were Afghan farmers who came out of the hills looking for a job.
“From what I’d read and heard, the Afghans were this tough and hardy bunch—every one of them a mountain goat,” the contractor says, “But that really wasn’t the case. Some didn’t even have the strength to hold a rifle to their shoulders. Only five or ten percent would be physically fit by Western standards.”
Drug use was also an issue. The instructors administered urine tests and found opiates in about half the recruits. Although drugs were forbidden on the base and throughout training, the poppy plant is a part of Afghan culture.
Another common criticism of Afghan security forces is their low literacy rates.
“About 20 percent of the guys couldn’t read,” says the contractor. “You had to make as much of the training as demonstrative as possible… But over on the law side, our guys trying to teach them the law had a much harder job.”
Whereas the verbal code of Pashtun law had been the governing body for many of these men, they were now law enforcement officers responsible for securing Afghan borders. Some had never even heard of the Afghan constitution.
But the recruits did leave camp in better shape than how they showed up. While some wanted nothing more than a paycheck, there were also some legitimately committed to a safe country, some with legitimate axes to grind with the Taliban, and nearly all benefited from the instruction.
“They did leave a bit more confident and a bit more capable,” the contractor says.
The APPF contracts signed this week may look good on paper, may be the first signs of handing over security to the Afghans, and they give the politicians, the military brass, and the reporters over at the Army Times a chance to blow hot air. But the challenges—from the lowest levels to the highest levels—that face a competent, reliable, and effective Afghan security presence remain vast.
“I’m just not sure if it’s built into to the country to have the kind of security presence we’re after,” the contractor says.