Afghan Guards Confound U.S. Forces
Wall Street Journal (2009-01-30) YOCHI J. DREAZEN
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- JANUARY 30, 2009, 1:51 A.M. ET
Afghan Guards Confound U.S. Forces
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A contingent of Army Rangers was moving toward a target in late October when it came under fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Fearful the team would be wiped out, U.S. officers called in air strikes. When the dust settled, 22 Afghans lay dead and six American soldiers were wounded.
Just who these dead Afghans were is still unclear. Afghan and some U.S. officials say they were hired by an Afghan road-construction firm to protect nearby workers. The security company confirms their employment. But other U.S. military officials say the Afghans were militants who targeted American troops.
Armed private security companies are proliferating in Afghanistan -- hired in many cases to protect Afghan companies doing work for the U.S. And for the American forces who regularly encounter these armed men, it is perilously hard to discern their identities and their loyalties. Some of these guards may be linked to the militant leaders or drug traffickers who regularly battle U.S. troops.
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The aftermath of a firefight in November in which U.S. forces killed more than a dozen Afghan men said to be guards for a road-building project.
U.S. commanders and Afghan officials say there have been at least three significant firefights between American forces and Afghan guards in recent months, and a host of other violent incidents.
In Iraq, private security companies hired by the U.S. government, such as Blackwater Worldwide, also have been involved in violent incidents that have stirred controversy. But the situation in Afghanistan, in some ways, is more confusing and dangerous. Private security forces there don't work for the U.S. government, but for Afghan and foreign companies. And they employ native Afghans, not Westerners.
Last year was the bloodiest year yet for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as well as for Afghan personnel and civilians. In recent months, militants from the Taliban and other extremist groups have launched a campaign to kill Afghans who work on U.S.-funded road and construction projects across the country. Those attacks have led many Afghan contractors to hire security firms or individual guards. Kidnapping rings that target wealthy Afghans inside major cities like Kabul also have contributed to the security industry's rapid growth.
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U.S. soldiers search an Afghan security guard whose firm escorts truck convoys, after they found illegal weapons in his vehicle last year.
President Barack Obama has characterized Afghanistan as a higher priority than Iraq. U.S. commanders are finalizing plans to deploy 30,000 additional troops to the nation by the summer, which would double the size of the American military presence.
American commanders acknowledge that security in much of the country remains poor, and that many construction projects would come to a halt without private security personnel. Most of the guards are legitimately trying to protect their employers, U.S. officials say.
"We authorize these guys to carry weapons in areas that need more security," says Capt. Mark Davis, an American commander in eastern Afghanistan. "But the risk is that you're allowing more people to walk around with guns who aren't part of the government and don't answer to it."
U.S. and Afghan officials believe some guards take orders from the Taliban or drug gangs. The officials also worry that the legitimate guards lack proper training or oversight, raising the chances of an accidental and potentially deadly run-in with U.S. or Afghan forces.
"Private security companies are a new experience for Afghanistan, and they pose a huge threat to our country," said Lt. Gen. Abdul Manan Farahie, an Afghan Interior Ministry official charged with overseeing the companies, in a recent interview in his office in Kabul. "They recruit former fighters who answer to the Taliban, and they recruit criminals."
Late last year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed regulations requiring security companies to register with the government. Gen. Farahie said he had already registered 39, far more than he had expected. One of the biggest firms, which has an array of lucrative government contracts, is owned by a cousin of Mr. Karzai, according to the government office that licenses the firms.
Gen. Farahie estimates the companies employ at least 20,000 Afghans, while thousands of other Afghans work freelance security jobs. He said many of the guards have more powerful weapons than the national police and army, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. By comparison, in Iraq, there were roughly 40,000 private security personnel at the peak.
By law, the guards are supposed to carry nothing more powerful than AK-47 assault weapons, but the government is ill equipped to take away the heavier weaponry. "For security reasons, we can't collect all of their weapons," said Gen. Farahie. "We're not strong enough."
Private security is one of the few growth industries in Afghanistan, and it doesn't require workers to be literate or formally educated. Guards say they receive about $75 to $150 a month, a decent wage in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 50%. Security teams are usually hired locally. That means that any guards killed by U.S. forces tend to have many friends and relatives in the surrounding areas, which can exacerbate already high tensions.
In early November, a team of Navy Seals tracking a senior commander from an extremist group led by warlord and Taliban ally Jalaluddin Haqqani found itself in a firefight with a group of 15 armed men. The men were guarding a trio of sport-utility vehicles carrying the commander and his associates, according to U.S. officials.
During the battle, near Khost, one of the trucks exploded. The force of the blast led U.S. officials to conclude it was carrying explosives. All 15 of the fighters, including the main target, were killed.
Businessman Mohammad Arif said recently that the dead men were guards hired by his company, Rahim Road Building Construction Co., to protect a road crew, and that they weren't guarding an extremist commander. When the guards first saw the approaching U.S. helicopters, he said, they felt a sense of relief.
"We were happy at first that these helicopters came for our security," Mr. Arif said. The guards didn't shoot, he said, and the explosion was caused by U.S. weaponry. In the aftermath, he said, he briefly had trouble finding men willing to work as guards.
"At first, most people didn't want to work with security companies because it is too risky," he said. "But eventually they came back."
U.S. officials say surveillance footage from unmanned aerial drones supports their version of events.
In late December, an Afghan road-construction company that had hired local men to protect its workers said two guards were killed by a U.S. artillery shell in Seray, in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. military says it's investigating the incident, which it believes might have been caused by an errant U.S. shell.
The deadliest known skirmish came in October. It began when a contingent of Army Rangers was moving toward a target near the town of Qarabagh, in the eastern province of Ghazni.
U.S. officials familiar with the incident say the troops came under machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade fire from four separate locations. Pinned down, the Rangers returned fire and called in air strikes.
A senior U.S. commander who monitored the firefight while it was happening says it was one of the only times in his career when he "worried about losing all or most of the force."
Shortly after sunrise, reinforcements from the 101st Airborne Division pushed into the area to assist the Rangers and help evacuate the wounded Americans. Those forces also came under fire, and a second firefight erupted. When the shooting stopped, 22 Afghans were dead, and six Americans, most of them Rangers, were wounded, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
Maj. Pat Seiber, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne troops who took part in the second firefight, says U.S. soldiers found identification badges on some of the dead Afghans.
"From what we can tell, the badges were from a legitimate security company," he says. "What we don't know is whether or not the people with the badges were legitimate employees of the company."
Three officers from the military's Special Operations Command, which oversees elite units such as the Rangers, Delta Force and the Seals, disputed the notion that the dead Afghans were legitimate security personnel.
"Why they were awake at 0200 local, and firing accurately (on a moonless night) at a patrol, and their compound looked like an armed fortress -- all unanswered questions," a senior commander with U.S. Special Operations Command said via email. "The circumstances ... did not point to any actions in good faith."
Officials from the Afghan government and the company that hired the guards, Marouf Sharif Construction, blame the U.S. for the deaths of the Afghans. Abdul Latif Adil, an executive with Marouf Sharif, said the firm hired 40 guards to protect workers paving an 11-mile stretch of highway.
The governor of Ghazni and the provincial police chief both said in interviews that they knew about the guards and had given them permission to possess AK-47s while on duty. The two officials and the construction-company executive said that the American troops fired first, and that the Afghans were doing their jobs when they shot back.
"Our guards didn't fire on the U.S. forces in the beginning," Mr. Adil said. "We didn't start anything. It was all a horrible mistake."
The identities of the dead men are in dispute even within the U.S. military. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, said they appeared to be legitimate guards.
"The fog of war certainly played a major role," he said in an interview. "The security companies use the same weapons and ammo as the insurgents, so it makes it extraordinarily hard to tell the difference."
In the aftermath of the incident, U.S. forces helped transport the bodies of the slain guards back to their families for burial, Gen. Schloesser said.
Yochi J. Dreazen at email@example.com