The Business of War in Afghanistan

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

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U.S. soldiers from 3rd platoon Bronco troop 5-20 infantry Regiment attached to 82nd Airborne patrol with Afghan national Army soldiers in Zharay district, Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan 22 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Baz Ratner)

By: Antony Loewenstein

Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Since the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has seen multiple private armies take control of the country’s security sector.

The private security compound was on the outskirts of Kabul. Situated along the road to Jalalabad on a notorious strip of highway, the landscape was industrial with sun-drenched low mountains on the horizon, shipping containers, dust swirling in the air, and mud across the ground.

Countless logistics companies are housed behind high concrete walls here. This industry has enjoyed a massive growth spurt since the US-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, despite the Hamid Karzai government reportedly taming it this year.

Al-Akhbar met the Western head of one of the country’s leading private security firms. While Indian Gurkhas trained outside, hoping to join the company’s ranks, the former British soldier explained that “we don’t call ourselves mercenaries” but are rather a reliable corporation that provides “static” security for foreign embassies, journalists, aid companies, hotels, and other key assets. The company opened in Afghanistan soon after the US invaded, and according to its head, it “survives off chaos.”

“From 2002 onward,” he said, “we worked with the Afghan government because the Ministry of Interior could not offer security to businesses or people and Western insurance companies insisted on the use of private military companies [PMCs]. Internationals felt they could not trust the Ministry of Interior when moving from province to province.”

Such logic is how the industry self-perpetuates even though Karzai has demanded for years that these companies be replaced with the Ministry of Interior's Afghan Private Protection Force (APPF) through Presidential Decree 62.

According the head of the company, APPF implementation in 2012 has been “chaotic.” During our interview, he received a call from an American client who didn’t understand Karzai’s new PMC rules. “One Afghan is supposed to be in every PMC in the country, but this has never happened,” he said.

The stated rationale for the massive growth in this industry globally, especially in war zones since September 11, has been the complicated nature of modern conflict. The company head offers a simpler explanation. “The Americans, British, and foreign forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are not big enough to re-build nations, so PMCs are needed to fill the void. We protect contractors building prisons and schools. If the US had used more troops, we would not be necessary.”

The multiple justifications for the 2001 invasion today ring hollow as women’s rights and development in rural villagers are lacking. America has spent tens of billions of aid money in the country and yet working services are minimal.

There is little evidence of lasting infrastructure built by the West, except for a handful of newly built roads and buildings in central Kabul. The outskirts of the capital remain poor and under-developed and districts further away have largely missed investment, except for some power lines and smooth asphalt near Surobi town.

Apart from the escalating rate of civilian deaths, at the hands of both Taliban and Western forces, the rise of private security armies has defined the war. This reality has resulted in recurring contractor crimes against Afghan civilians where no one was held accountable. The record of Western security firms post 9/11 is filled with a troubling lack of justice for victims.

Al-Akhbar spoke to two Afghan men in a restaurant near the center of Kabul. Both had families who’d suffered privatized violence first hand. Tariq-U-Rahman and Fahim, both from Wardak Province, explained that they faced threats before being forced to move to Kabul by three elements: the Taliban, US forces, and private security companies.

Afghan firms have been hired and empowered by the US military to transport their gear across the country. The job is to guard the convoys but they regularly establish so-called “security perimeters” and in the process exchange fire with the Taliban, wantonly harming civilians. One of the worst offenders is Watan Risk Management, a leading company with close times to the Karzai family that pays off the Taliban not to attack US convoys.

Fahim said his cousin, a shopkeeper, was shot dead by a Watan private security guard one year ago for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Watan admitted fault, he said, and offered US$20,000 compensation but the family was still waiting for the money. The wife and children were now struggling despite the family financially assisting them.

Fahim, an unemployed engineer, said he wasn’t overly concerned about the proposed 2014 departure of Western forces because the Taliban, who he expects to take over, would “hopefully” at least bring some stability and peace to the country, as had happened before the 2001 invasion. He also hoped that private security companies, whose individuals never face justice for killing and maiming civilians, would become unnecessary because there would no longer be any US convoys to protect.

Fahim said that private security companies could be necessary in other countries with more stability but in Afghanistan they had only brought “misery and violence.” Neither believed the Karzai pledge to completely disband the firms because they are controlled by the “powerful” close to government. “They have too much to lose if the companies shut down,” Fahim said.

The current situation in Afghanistan confirms his scepticism. M.Ashraf Haidari, an American-educated senior Afghan official who is the Deputy Assistant National Security Adviser and Senior Policy and Oversight Adviser to Karzai, said that Afghan authorities were closing the “illegal and un-licenced” firms and said that “the new rules attempt to regulate the system.”

International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] spokesman Jimmie E. Cummings Jr. said the same thing, detailing the Karzai government’s Presidential Decree 62 that “mandated the dissolution of private security companies by the end of November 2010.”

In many cases this has happened. But a number of Western and local security corporations confirmed they are still operating and imagine doing so for years to come, finding ways around the new rules. “Many embassies, for example, simply won’t trust the Afghan Private Protection Force and will continue to rely on foreign security companies,” one said.

The supposed purpose of the industry is to undertake tasks the state’s military can’t or won’t do. But in a poor nation such as Afghanistan, resentment built quickly when it was discovered that the Afghan army was getting paid much less than the private militias.

Outsourcing security isn’t the only privatized resource in the country. Intelligence is increasingly collected by private companies and given to American, Australian, and British forces. This information often forms the basis of the notorious, American-led night-raids across the nation that have caused the death of countless civilians and bred deep anger toward the West.

An Afghan translator who had recently worked with the US on night-raids in Kandahar said that the vast majority of home invasions targeted the wrong people, inflaming anti-Western hatred. He was targeted himself by the Taliban in Kabul.

It was only years after the 2001 invasion, according to a leading Western analyst in Kabul, that the West understood that their policies, alongside a corrupt Afghan government, “were fuelling the insurgency.” This realization convinced the Western military establishment to hire private intelligence firms in order to better understand the people they were fighting. There was the “clean slate idea,” the analyst said. “Namely that you get rid of the Taliban and install new leaders. But they actually empowered old figures with bad records.”

The Western-head of a private information gathering organization said that his company’s work was increasingly common because “today’s wars aren’t between two equal sides.” He used Afghans across the country to prepare briefs about the latest political and security situations for Western embassies but he claimed this information “never serves military purposes.”

The darkest side of privatized intelligence is corporations gathering information about Afghans for use in Western counter-insurgency operations. Jeremy Kelly in the London Times published extracts in March of documents by US-based “consultancy company” AECOM. They had been hired by NATO to spy on mosques, universities, and the general community throughout the country. The work started just over one year ago.

There are files detailing conversations from March 2012. People complain about the Karzai government’s corruption and inefficiency, clerics in mosques demand Western forces leave immediately, personal matters are discussed including vocalized support for the insurgency, proposed marriages between the Taliban and local girls, and complaints about troubles when working in Iran.

The research comes from a range of districts and is separated between “supportive” and “non-supportive” individuals of the NATO mission.

One man in Jowzjān province said: “About 30 percent of our people believe that they should pick up weapons and start a jihad against ISAF soldiers. Another 70 percent believes that the financial situation is too weak and they do not have the ability to organize a fight against ISAF soldiers. Our country has been at war for the past three decades, and we are tired of war. We just want to live in peace.”

Another entry, from 14 March in the Shibirghan District, details an “overheard conversation between two Uzbek males between the ages of 40-45 at market.”

In the report one man said, “The other day I was riding on a bus when it became very windy. It seemed as if it was raining dust. People were saying that this could be a sign God’s wrath. This is happening to us because the Americans have burned the Quran, but we are calmly sitting idle. We should be rising up against the Americans for what they have done. We are being punished for doing nothing.” [A different] resident stated, “I do not know, but it might be possible.”

Such details appear mundane, but this is exactly the point. It is such seemingly insignificant comments that form the basis of Western “intelligence” against an enemy that continues to elude the most powerful military in the world.

These normal and daily conversations of local villagers form the “intelligence” behind US-led night-raids. Mistakes are routinely made. Innocent men are kidnapped. Many are killed. It is a failed counter-terrorism policy that is fuelling the insurgency.

People in Afghanistan believe the recent announcement that Afghan forces would now take the lead in night-raids was spin to show the Karzai government has sovereignty in its own country.

More disturbingly, the US military and its allies have no idea of the agendas of the Afghans giving them intelligence. Respected organizations such as The Afghanistan Analysts Network refuse to undertake commissioned work for clients, because they are worried their research may be co-opted for military means. As soon as the Taliban was toppled in 2001, Northern Alliance forces and their allies routinely sought payback from enemies, real and imagined. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune witnessed this trend as far back as November 2001.

That was then. Today, the US government realizes it will have to negotiate with the Taliban but is hiring private firms to better understand who should be targeted first. Being Taliban or related to Taliban members does not necessarily mean an individual is against the country’s positive future but the US too often sees all Taliban members or affiliates as the enemy.

Wikileaks has revealed countless names of innocent Afghans swept up in the invasion chaos. Their indefinite detention and torture at the hands of Afghan forces – the US still passes captured Afghan prisoners to Afghan-run jails with notorious records of abuse – led some of them to join the insurgency.

Most of the Western media coverage of Afghanistan remains focused on high-profile events such as the recent attack in the center of Kabul. While it is undoubtedly important in the context of Afghan security forces’ ability to assume full control by 2014, it only tells a small part of the picture.

Privatized security and intelligence is now a natural part of Western war making. America simply cannot and will not launch missions without the backing of often unaccountable companies that compliment its defense industry.

Since the departure of US troops from Iraq, thousands of foreign contractors still populate the country. Afghanistan will likely be no different after 2014. The lack of Congressional oversight or judicial review is deeply concerning and reflects an attitude of contempt toward the local laws of the occupied nation.

During Al-Akhbar’s visit to Afghanistan, in Kabul and surrounding districts the main message received was distrust of foreign forces, both fear and admiration of the Taliban, and loathing of Western and local private militias. The key lesson in Afghanistan is that invading, bombing, and empowering local warlords won’t bring either security for locals or safety for the West.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author who is currently working on a book and documentary about disaster capitalism.

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