|Karzai, US ambassador at odds over private security
KABUL – The US ambassador to Afghanistan proposed doubling private security companies' manpower in the war-torn country Wednesday, only months after President Hamid Karzai tried to disband them, an official said.
In a meeting at the presidential palace, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry told Karzai an extra 25,000 private security guards needed to be recruited before development projects go ahead, a participant at the gathering told AFP.
The move widens the rift between the embattled Afghan leader and his Western backers, who are fighting a nine-year Taliban insurgency in the country, the official added.
Karzai strongly objected to the idea in a "serious" debate, instead asking for funds to be poured into training and strengthening the Afghan police force to do the job, the participant said.
Last August Karzai ordered the disbandment of all private security firms, both national and international, within four months, but later backed down under pressure from his western allies, allowing licensed firms to continue operations.
Many important foreign entities in Afghanistan depend on the private firms and say that the Afghan police are neither trained or numerous enough to take on the work.
Under the softened policy security firms with development company contracts, as well as those that work for NATO, foreign embassies and the United Nations, were allowed to operate until their contracts expire.
An estimated 27,000 guards are employed by private security firms in Afghanistan, but Karzai blames the companies for security violations, corruption, irregularities and the misuse of weapons.
Wednesday's meeting was attended by Eikenberry, a NATO official, Karzai, his first Vice President Mohamamd Qaseem Fahim, his national security advisor, his interior minister and other officials, said the participant.
"It turned into a serious discussion, the president said we are trying to dismantle private security firms but you want to add another 25,000 to the firms," said the senior official at Karzai's palace, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
"This means you are creating parallel forces to Afghan security institutions and this means you do not want private security companies to be dismantled," the official cited the president as saying.
Karzai said the plan ran counter to the goals of strengthening Afghan forces and national institution-building, the official said.
He added the US ambassador argued that billions of dollars' worth of development projects would not go ahead unless they were provided with security and private security guards were the solution.
Funds for more guards had been approved by the US Congress and could not be channelled to helping train the Afghan police force, the official cited Eikenberry as saying.
The US embassy press attaché in Kabul, Kerri Hannan, confirmed the meeting but refused to comment on details of the talks.
"We can confirm Ambassador Eikenberry met with President Karzai today. We do not comment on the details of our diplomatic discussions," she said in an emailed response to AFP.
The meeting ended without reaching a conclusion, the official said, adding that the Afghan government would find a suitable solution to provide security for development projects within a week.
NATO-led troops have accelerated the training of Afghan forces who will gradually take security responsibility as foreign militaries start to withdraw from mid-2011.
By 2014 the Afghan police and army will take charge of most security across the country and take the lead in battling the Taliban insurgency, which has paralysed reconstruction and state-building efforts.