Monday, May 19, 2008

Hillary vs. The Private Security Company

In the wake of the Sept 2007 shooting by Blackwater staff of Iraq civilians there was a typical response by the Congress, pretend to investigate but actually use the incident to beat the other side with a political stick announce radical changes that make no sense but make for a good sound bite and then do nothing but recently Senator Hillary Clinton now running far to the left as a soon to be ex-Presidential candidate went a step further and put forward legislation to stop the use of Private Security Company’s (PSC’s) from doing what traditionally was done by government forces. Here’s an example of why she’s wrong to lump all PSC activities together.

What does it take to hold multiple elections within 3 years in a country that has suffered through decades of occupation, dictatorship and war?

As the International Security Forces were few and the Afghan Security Forces weren’t ready the UN planning staff turned to a PSC to provide not only security but also all logistical support to the hundreds of UN personnel that had to first conduct voter registration throughout Afghanistan. This was a new role for the PSC and was new ground for the UN as well. While the UN is the most experienced organization at running elections in war torn locations it had never before attempted such a feat without UN peacekeepers to protect the UN civilian workforce.

The PSC set up teams of discreetly armed ex-western military men using Afghan drivers and translators. They worked tirelessly to pave the way for the UN registration teams, coordinating movements using aircraft, helicopters, vehicles and mules depending on the distance, terrain and availability of transportation to ensure that every village was attended too. How exactly did it work?

The PSC teams would conduct an advanced visit to each village and provide information on what the UN was doing and when they would be coming, they would met with the village elder or the senior tribal leader to ensure that the UN personnel would be welcomed as guests and thus protected. Once a village was confirmed as safe the project office in Kabul would be informed and the visit dates confirmed. The team would then return to their regional HQ to pick up the UN personnel and escort them to the village. Many hours of satellite phone time was burned up trying to make this process go as smoothly as it could. Often it didn’t go smoothly as transportation broke down, or didn’t show up, translators simply went home without warning to visit family or if the UN team was later than expected angry village elders refused to allow their people to be registered until proper apologizes had been made. To avoid the possibility of any harm coming to the UN civilians the PSC teams were the face of the voter registration program. They also died to make the program work in one case when two members of the PSC team and their translator were executed and dumped beside a highway after being stopped at an insurgent checkpoint. It was a clear message that not everybody was ready for democracy but the program went ahead.

When it came time to distribute the ballots and the boxes the UN again turned to a PSC company to ensure things got to where they needed to be, weren’t tampered with, polling stations were safe places and that all the ballots, used and unused were safely returned to Kabul for counting. This was not only a great security challenge but also a logistical challenge again involving all means of transport and hundreds of PSC and UN personnel but this time there was also the added burden of independent election monitors.

After almost a year’s effort by hundreds of people, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected President of Afghanistan in decades but this was only the beginning.

In 2005 the final piece of the democracy puzzle had to be put into place, the full election of an independent parliament. Once again the UN turned to outsourcing the security and logistics of the voting process. As it was a repeat of the earlier process it went even more smoothly with all the lessons learned from the first registration and voting put into practise, still there were challenges. The biggest challenge was the election monitoring process. This time to ensure that the monitors were truly independent of the UN election team they hired their own PSC’s and moved separately. Fortunately the country was more stable in 2005 and the logistical resources had also grown, as had the ability of the government to regulate and provide some police and military support at each polling station.

At the end of the process, there were many celebrations throughout Kabul, at the UN HQ the relief and happiness at a successful election without any violence was overwhelming while the team members of the Republican Democratic Institute (RDI) celebrated with the PSC teams that protected them and presented the company with a letter of appreciation stating that they couldn’t have done their job without the professional effort of the PSC who provided them with all transportation, polling station access passes, food, water, and armed protection not to mention protecting them before and after the actual election and the vote counting process.

For those involved in the process, it was just another job but the reality was that when the UN, PSC’s and the local security forces all work in concert you can have free and fair elections without violence. PSC’s may have no experience in running an election but they can ensure one is run safely and efficiently. After 12 million Afghan people were registered and went to the polls twice no voters, UN personnel or monitors were killed or injured.

Perhaps Senator Clinton and her colleagues should stop grandstanding long enough to realize that like all industries Private Security Company’s are not only good at some things but a better use of resources in many cases and like any industry they need guidance and a structured set of rules to play by. Is she willing to roll back the clock and say Brinks Guards can longer move money for banks only police can perform any guarding function requiring a weapon in the US? I don’t think cities, counties or states budgets would survive such a measure as police have a different role and certainly a higher cost attached to them.

Before we go too far lets stop and think and perhaps for once let’s not through the baby out with the bathwater just to try and prove a political point.

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