By Huma Yusuf
In August, Afghan President Hamid Karzai caught the US off guard by announcing a ban on private security firms. Many surmised the ban was an attempt to siphon off revenue generated by Afghanistan’s 52 security firms.
The sheer size and growth of the private security infrastructure signal the extent to which the Pakistani state has absconded on its duties to protect its citizens.
But Karzai insisted that he was facilitating the process of entrusting Afghanistan’s security to Afghans. Whatever Karzai’s motivations, his decision holds a lesson for the Pakistani government. The Afghan state’s primary complaint against private security firms is that they constitute a parallel security structure that challenges the authority of the army and police. By emphasising this, Karzai is referring to an old premise of political theory: for a state to be functional and effective, it must retain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Of course, by Max Weber’s definition, private security firms retain this monopoly since the state licenses them to engage in violence. But these are academic arguments that play out quite differently on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s security firms – often internationally managed outfits that recruit Afghans – have been undermining the state’s ability to safeguard its citizens. A US Senate Armed Services Committee report found that Taliban insurgents and fighters affiliated with warlords sign up as security guards. These elements exploit the fact that millions of dollars, arms, equipment and training are available to private security firms contracted by the US. By serving as security guards, they bolster the capacity and reach of the Taliban.
Afghan security guards have been known to smuggle weapons, work against coalition forces and terrorise local populations by shooting indiscriminately while escorting supply convoys. Not surprisingly, Karzai wants to see these outfits disbanded, and has asked his government to monitor the transition of security guards into the Afghan National Army and police force, where their activities can be overseen.
US and Nato forces have questioned the wisdom of the ban: they point out that the army and police are not ready to shoulder the burden of maintaining security. And few are convinced that the Afghan government can ensure minimal infiltration by the Taliban. Already, the Afghans have had to refine their position: private security guards will continue at places where foreigners work. Karzai is also being pressured to allow security firms to continue protecting the aid community.
Karzai’s stance against private security firms, though drastic and under attack, has set an interesting precedent for the region. After all, Pakistan too faces a unique set of problems resulting from the proliferation of private security firms. While most Pakistanis are obsessed with the presence of Xe Services (Blackwater) and DynCorp in the country, the greatest challenges to state authority are posed by domestic policy and practice. The sheer size and growth of the private security infrastructure signal the extent to which the Pakistani state has absconded on its duties to protect its citizens.
The statistics are staggering: there are about 600 licensed firms employing over 300,000 guards nationally (that figure is the equivalent of the total number of active duty personnel in Pakistan’s paramilitary forces, including the Rangers, National Guard, Maritime Security and Frontier Corps). Private security is a Rs5.5bn per annum industry, and it grows by 15 per cent per month. In Karachi, private security guards outnumber police officers by a three-to-one ratio. Undoubtedly, private security is co-opting the role of law-enforcing agencies in Pakistan.
More problematically, state institutions such as the army and police are allowed by law to establish private security companies. This measure ostensibly helps security forces ensure the welfare of their retired personnel. But such set-ups (including the private wing of the National Police Force, Fauji Security Services, Frontier Corps Security Services and the Sindh police department’s upcoming Sindh Police Welfare Security Guards) are commercial ventures that draw on state assets such as training facilities and human resources. As such, these firms make citizens pay for a service that the government should be providing free of cost.Given the number of groups that challenge the Pakistani state’s monopoly on violence – the private armies of feudal lords, urban gangs, smuggling rackets, and, of course, violent extremist and sectarian groups – the official trend towards institutionalising and promoting private security firms at the expense of strengthening the state’s security apparatus is baffling. It also poses a conflict of interest: although Pakistan spends billions on national security, it allows firms under the ambit of the state to profit from the poor security situation. The privatisation of security also creates troubling hierarchies regarding who and what is secured, to what extent, and how – only those who can afford to be are safe in today’s Pakistan.
Like Afghanistan, Pakistan has also seen how these private forces undermine the effectiveness of the state security infrastructure that they are supposedly complementing. The recruiting standards of security firms are lax, and in some cases guards receive only three days of training before deployment. Guards have been known to participate in armed burglaries, and were implicated in several major bank robberies last year that helped finance terrorism in the tribal areas. In January this year, the head of a private security company was arrested in Islamabad for trafficking unlicensed weapons.
State-sanctioned security privatisation also stymies the ongoing effort by political parties and NGOs to deweaponise society. Though legally mandated to do so, private security firms essentially hand out weapons to men with unknown (and often dubious) ideologies and fluctuating criminal proclivities, and that too at an alarming rate.
While the average Pakistani citizen’s desire to feel secure at all costs is understandable, the Pakistan government should rethink its policies regarding the licensing and growth of the private security sector. After all, a state that no longer exercises direct control over the most basic mandate of security provision and law-enforcement is one that can no longer be seen to have legitimate authority.