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by Fariba Nawa

Amid Chaos, Baghdad Residents Hire Private Security Companies

(PNS) KABUL -- Two months before the 2004 Afghan presidential election, a car bomb shook the Kabul headquarters of DynCorp International, one of the world's largest private security firms. The explosion wounded about 45 people and killed 17.

Whether it was Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other opposition to the government, the bombers got their target. DynCorp has political significance to the insurgents. Its employees have been everywhere, guarding President Hamid Karzai and training the Afghan police.

Texas-based DynCorp's first contract in post-Taliban Afghanistan, awarded in 2002, was worth $50 million, but ballooned to more than $82 million by the middle of 2003, according to the Center for Public Integrity. A subsequent renewal was worth $290 million over three years for police training, efforts to curtail the heroin trade, and guarding Karzai (this last responsibility was handed over to Afghan bodyguards in 2006).

The company is highly visible, with M-16-carrying employees roaming Kabul in armored cars. DynCorp guards, many of whom are former SWAT team officers, have become notorious for their rudeness -- breaking reporters' cameras, bossing around dignitaries, and disrespecting the polite Afghan culture. One was seen slapping the Afghan transportation minister.

While some Afghan ministers complain about the U.S. government funneling "aid" money right back to American corporations such as DynCorp, the company does have its Afghan supporters. General Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, the head of the police training center in Kabul, said the company "has worked with us very well, consulting with every decision and minding our cultural needs."

A State Department official in Washington, D.C., said the U.S. government is happy with the company's performance. "They provide support and security and they've done well in a precarious situation," he said.

The "precarious situation" in Afghanistan has created a massive new market for foreign security firms. Nearly every big contractor in Afghanistan hires a security firm to protect its employees, offices, guesthouses, and equipment. According to the Afghan Investment Support Agency, there are 25 foreign security companies, nine of which are joint ventures, operating in the country. Those firms working with the United Nations have some legal status, but the rest are in the country without any type of regulation and control.

U.S. Protection and Investigations is the most visible security company in the cities and on the roads of Afghanistan. Its guards hide in blue boxes where they eat, sleep, and listen to their radios day and night in front of the homes and offices they are guarding. USPI is a mom-and-pop firm from Texas founded in 1987 by Barbara Spier, a former safety inspector for a restaurant chain, and her husband Del, a private investigator specializing in insurance fraud and workman's compensation cases. The firm has contracts with United Nations, private contractors and foreign government agencies in Afghanistan. Its main selling point is price: It can underbid its competitors largely because it spends so little on hiring qualified guards. One Afghan protecting one of the Berger offices said he had to buy his weapon for $200, even though his salary was already too little to pay rent and feed his family. "One of their 'internationals' spends the $3 they give us on his bottled water for a day," he said.

The company was criticized last year when a British engineer it was guarding was captured and nearly decapitated by rebels claiming to be Taliban. In a another case, an American USPI supervisor shot and killed his Afghan interpreter, Noor Ahmed, after an argument. USPI helicoptered the supervisor out of the province where he was working, then flew him back to the United States. While it is unclear whether security contractors are subject to local or U.S. military law, the USPI supervisor has so far been subject to neither.

Fred Chace of the Louis Berger Group, which hired USPI, said the supervisor shot the interpreter in self-defense, and that Afghan authorities had questioned the American before allowing him to leave the country. He added that the interpreter's family had been compensated with "blood money." Fazel Ahmed, Noor Ahmed's brother, disputed the explanation of self-defense and said his brother's widow and seven children had not received any money from USPI.

USPI has also sparked controversy over its close relationships with local warlords. The International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to resolving conflict, has criticized USPI for employing former militias and allowing them to use their position to carry out illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

An official in the Afghan interior ministry said they were having a difficult time with the firm because as it protects its clients, USPI is endangering ordinary Afghans.

"They make deals with local commanders who are supposed to be disarmed and do not let us know so we can at least register them," said the ministry official. "We've asked USPI to stop doing this, but they continue to do so."

Bill Dupre, the operations manager at the firm in Kabul, did not deny that USPI worked with commanders. "We'd like to think that we know who's in control, and whereby knowing who's in control, we'd like to set lines at what point to use which kind of commanders," he said.

"We're responsible for protecting the lives of the clients," he added. "As such, we do not get involved with the politics of the country."

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Albion Monitor   June 13, 2006   (

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