Tuesday, July 24, 2007

HOW PRIVATE COMPANIES OPERATE IN AFGHANISTAN

“Mayday…Mayday…Hotel 19 has red engine lights and is making an emergency landing”. This recent call for help was not from military helicopter suffering engine failure and therefore a forced landing in Helmand province but one exclusively leased by a large reconstruction company operating on a major US government contract. What happened next demonstrates how the private sector and NATO are operating in concert in southern Afghanistan.

The radio call was received in the private company’s tactical operations center (TOC) which is manned 24/7 and well tied in to the NATO Joint Command Center (JCC) in Kabul. The JCC was able to contact the nearest local unit, which moved forces (in this case British military forces) to the area. While the helicopter was on the ground it was attacked by anti government elements (AGE) using rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and small arms. On board were 2 personnel working for the reconstruction company, two armed security personnel and the pilot all of whom had to move away from the helicopter and for the next 3 hours avoid capture until the rescue force could arrive and secure the area. To ensure the military was aware of this friendly movement numerous calls occurred between the personnel on the ground to the TOC using their satellite phone and then from the TOC to both the JCC and to their own liaison officer attached to the forces tasked with the rescue. This was truly the best example of how it should work.

The use of liaison officers is another example of how private companies are integrating with NATO. This was once strictly a military method used to ensure multinational units or units from different countries on each other’s flanks understood each other’s actions and movements. Now in Afghanistan it is increasingly becoming both a military and civilian position with many contracts calling for security companies to be capable of conducting direct liaison with the Kabul based HQ and with the field units located throughout the country. It has taken a great deal of time and patience to get to the point where the military is willing to work this closely with the civilian sector but it really picked up steam with the arrival of the NATO command structure which was almost immediately interested in this option.

This system of private companies running their own TOC’s and the use of liaison officers are unique to Afghanistan and vastly different from Iraq. In Iraq the US military established the Regional Operations Center’s (ROC) staffed by both military and private security personnel to coordinate all private sector movements. All companies register with the nearest ROC and prior to any movement contact the ROC to ensure they are being monitored electronically. Should an incident occur it’s the ROC staff that contact the US military quick reaction force (QRF) to respond. Often this system works well but private companies also complain loudly about the lag time between electronically signalling a major incident and the response, which often results in kidnappings and larger death tolls than may be necessary.

Another element for private companies working in Afghanistan to consider relates to the increase in Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) activity in providing protection and response. This has brought with it challenges of it’s own depending on where the company intends to work. There is also the issue of using Interior Ministry troops which are a quasi National police as they are often recruited from their home provinces and don’t work well with those from other provinces up to and including major fire fights between units. Private companies have taken up this challenge by hiring Afghan advisors who have a better understanding of the subtleties of the various tribes and regions. They have also paid the ANA and ANP directly to provide liaison officers to be available at the various worksites to ensure both the ANA and ANP understand what the private companies are doing. These liaison officers are also of great benefit when movements are being conducted in that they can help with passage through checkpoints and can also help with identifying fake checkpoints.

Private companies are also discovering the challenges of working with the new Afghan government, which is slowly moving towards a truer form of democracy and a less corrupt free market economy. The current key to success is to hire the right local national that can assist with challenges such as customs clearance, business licences, and those everyday challenges involving the various ministries that have to approve business activities. Recently the government ordered all private security companies to notify the ANP prior a conducting a movement within Kabul. Any private security company caught making an unapproved movement would have their weapons and vehicles confiscated and their personnel would have their visa’s revoked. If a company had a second offence they would have their business licence and weapon’s permit suspended for a period of time while a third offence would see the company decertified for good. One can argue this is a bad thing (providing local nationals with your movement details) or see it as a sign of progress as the Afghan government begins to take control of its country either way it was a dramatic change in the way private security companies have to do business in Afghanistan and only time will tell whether or not the ANP is ready for the responsibility of protecting this important information.

Based on both my past personal experiences and those of my fellow contractors continuing to work in Afghanistan it would appear that the majority of the country will continue down the right path and life for private companies should become more predictable however I still see storm clouds for those provinces bordering Pakistan particularly Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika and Khost. NATO, the Afghan government and the private sector while continuing to operate in these provinces must do so with a much higher level of risk and a much lower threshold for rapid results. Private companies need to be prepared to take on these operations centers and budget for liaison officers to ensure they are fully integrated into both the Afghan security forces and NATO or risk being caught unaware of AGE activities in their area of operations or when a response is needed risk it being unnecessarily slow.

If I owned a crystal ball I would say that this summer and fall will be a timeframe to closely watch as military operations, reconstruction activity and anti-poppy activity will be ramped up to its highest level yet in those southern provinces as the Afghan government and NATO are feeling confident enough in the remainder of the country to finally focus on the most turbulent regions. If next spring we are still seeing the current levels of violence in all of these provinces private companies will most likely be revaluating their business plans.

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