Central Asia

Security for sale in Afghanistan
By David Isenberg

The role of private military companies received a significant, if little noted, boost late last year when the Virginia-based US contractor DynCorp received a new assignment: protecting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. While this is undoubtedly good news for DynCorp, the jury is still out as to how positive a development it is for Karzai.

According to the US State Department, in mid-November the department's Diplomatic Security Service assumed responsibility for Karzai’s protection from the military's Special Operations Forces, upon which a portion of the work was contracted to DynCorp.

DynCorp is a 56-year-old corporation with 23,000 employees and an annual income of almost US$2 billion, headquartered in Reston, Virginia. DynCorp had previously assisted with the protection of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the early 1990s. Karzai, chosen as president in July, survived an assassination attempt in Kandahar on September 5, when Special Forces bodyguards killed a gunman who opened fire on a presidential motorcade.

The contracting out of Karzai's personal security has not been without controversy.

Some people see the awarding of the job to DynCorp as a sign of relative disinterest in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has been toppled. Indeed, in an effort to pressure the administration into not losing focus on Afghan security needs, the US Congress passed a nonbinding "sense of the Congress" resolution that said, in part, "any United States physical protection force provided for the personal security of the President of Afghanistan should be composed of United States diplomatic security, law enforcement or military personnel, and should not utilize private contracted personnel to provide actual physical protection services."

Back in September, Representatives Henry J Hyde, Republican of Illinois, and Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, sent a letter to the State and Defense Departments, urging them to combine forces to protect Karzai rather than hire a private company. "Experience with such contractors elsewhere leads us to believe that the presence of commercial vendors acting in this capacity would send a different message to the Afghan people and to President Karzai's adversaries: that we are not serious enough about our commitment to Afghanistan to dispatch US personnel," the lawmakers wrote.

Others wonder why it is that the United States is providing private bodyguard service to a democratically elected leader. Yet another issue is the image it presents. Having Karzai guarded by outsiders, specifically Americans, when many already view him as merely a puppet for US interests, will not do much to solidify his standing within his own country.

Another concern about DynCorp is that using it will allow the executive branch to evade public scrutiny. A November article in the New Republic expressed concern that "no one in government or at DynCorp would tell me when the mission will start or finish, confirm exactly what roles DynCorp will play, or even reveal what the company will be paid ... As a result, PMC [private military corporation] missions often fly beneath the radar, garnering almost no attention in the press or anywhere else."

In that regard it is worth noting that in early December the Bush administration rejected Colombia's offer to grant war crimes immunity to US soldiers in the country after Colombia refused to extend the protection to private military contractors such as DynCorp.

DynCorp will be under great scrutiny as it tries to carry out this new, high-profile assignment without any glitches. While it has been involved in providing military services for some years, notably in the Balkans and Colombia, it has come under fire recently for the actions of some of its employees. It was recently involved in a scandal when some of its employees were involved in a prostitution ring in Bosnia. DynCorp personnel contracted to the United Nations police service in Bosnia were implicated in buying and selling prostitutes, including girls as young as 12. Some DynCorp employees were also accused of videotaping the rape of one of the women.

While doubts remain about how well DynCorp will do its job in Afghanistan, it should come as no surprise that the government turned to a private sector group. In the aftermath of the Cold War, with the United States trying to do more with fewer personnel, the US government has turned to private contractors to carry out logistical support, site security, foreign military training and observation missions, to name just a few. Today, at least 35 PMCs are based in the United States.

As an October New York Times article noted, during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, one of every 50 people on the battlefield was an American civilian under contract; by the time of the peacekeeping effort in Bosnia in 1996, the figure was one in 10. Of course, providing personal security is not quite the same as being under mortar fire. On the other hand Afghanistan is still dangerous enough that nobody in their right mind would call it peaceful.

As Deborah Avant, a professor of political science at George Washington University, has written, "Since the end of the Cold War, this foreign market has boomed ... The range of services purchased from US PSCs [private security companies] by foreign governments and private entities matches the broad range purchased by the US government ... The fact that PSCs sell the same services to US government that they sell abroad (combined with the fact that the US government is a very good customer) gives American PSCs a market incentive to pay attention to US policy and to stay in tune with government initiatives."

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies, or to submit a letter to the editor.)
Jan 4, 2003


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