KABUL // More than a billion dollars in US-funded development projects and other aid in Afghanistan continued to hang in the balance yesterday, as President Hamid Karzai eased, but did not revoke, a deadline for all private security firms to leave Afghanistan.
US officials held a meeting with Mr Karzai in the Afghan capital on Sunday in an attempt to persuade him to compromise on the ban of security firms upon which US aid and development organisations rely heavily for protection.
Mr Karzai said yesterday he would extend a December 17 deadline for the companies to disband by at least two extra months.
If the ban is implemented, a handful of US-backed development companies would be forced to pack up and leave Afghanistan and eliminate a key element of Nato's counterinsurgency strategy.
A committee of officials to review the decree would now be set up, the president said in a statement, meaning security companies may have longer than two months to disband, depending on how quickly a timetable to be submitted on November 15 takes to be approved. It is also unclear whether different organisations will be given different deadlines.
The Afghan president has already announced he would exempt private security guards protecting Nato military bases and foreign embassies from the ban.
But foreign employees of three major US government subcontractors in Kabul said their companies are making plans to scale down, and eventually halt infrastructure and consulting projects worth millions of dollars in the country.
According to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a US government body, US$5.1 billion (Dh18.7bn) in US funding is earmarked for spending in Afghanistan through at least 59 subcontracted aid and development organisations. Many of the projects are aimed at building support among ordinary Afghans who might otherwise back the Taliban by building roads and providing other community services in rural areas.
"We have a deadline for when, if Karzai hasn't gone back on his decision, we'll begin shutting down and moving everyone out of the country," said an employee of the international consulting firm DeLoitte currently under contract with the US government, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"Right now we're working more or less normally," the employee said. "But we've stopped taking some of the bigger acquisitions and are ready to shut down some of our projects in the provinces."
Mr Karzai declared in August a ban on all private security organisations, accusing the roughly 40,000 armed workers - both foreign and Afghan - of undermining the Afghan national army and police and causing unnecessary civilian casualties. He announced he would begin dismantling the groups, of which there are about 50, earlier this month.
Non-profit, non-governmental organisations that work mainly in the realm of humanitarian aid will not be affected by the ban because "only a few" of the 380 NGOs in Afghanistan use private security guards, according to a statement from the Afghan NGO Safety Office.
But for-profit companies subcontracted to carryout US government-funded projects - among them DeLoitte, Development Alternatives International and International Relief and Development - are required for insurance purposes to hire private security guards to protect their employees, projects and offices from Taliban insurgent attacks.
Nato and the US military also depend heavily on private security guards to protect weapons supply lines, military bases, foreign embassies and diplomatic staff.
The private armed guards have come under fire from both rights groups and the Afghan government for being ill-disciplined. They have grown immensely unpopular among ordinary Afghans.
Mr Karzai said members of the Afghan army and police recruits should handle security, and that approval for the use of private security guards for foreign-backed reconstruction projects will be assessed by the Afghan government on a case-by-case basis.
"Karzai can make a last-minute decision, some sort of exception for us, but the damage may have already been done," the DeLoitte employee said. "People are already leaving, planning to leave, sending their resumes to places outside Afghanistan. They don't want to sit around and wait to see if they still have jobs."
A US Embassy spokeswoman said the US government is "working to implement the decree in a manner that supports Afghan sovereignty, the development of Afghan National Security Forces, and allows crucial development work to continue".
But a senior US military adviser in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr Karzai is "very serious" about shutting down the private security companies, and that while he sympathises with Mr Karzai's qualms with private security forces, the decree is sure to slow down immensely US efforts to win over Afghans with key reconstruction projects.
Millions of dollars will also be lost, the military adviser says, and there just are not enough foreign soldiers to fill the gap left behind by private security contractors and the thousands of foreign staff they protect.
"We hire directly 2,000 Afghan nationals, but there are also their families and the vendors we buy supplies from that also rely on our support," the DeLoitte employee said. "But what happens when we suddenly have to leave? It's just not well thought out."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press