KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government said Sunday it has started dissolving private security firms in the country by taking steps to end the operations of eight companies, including the firm formerly known as Blackwater and three other international contractors.
"We have very good news for the Afghan people today," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters in the capital. "The disbanding of eight private security firms has started."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that private security contractors would have to cease operations by the end of the year — wiping out an industry with tens of thousands of guards who protect military convoys, government officials and businesspeople.
Some security contractors have been criticized for operating more like private militias, and the government said it could not have armed groups that were independent of the police or military forces.
The eight companies include Xe Services — the North Carolina-based contractor formerly called Blackwater — Virginia-based NCL Holdings LLC, New Mexico-based Four Horsemen International and London-based Compass International, Omar said. Two large Afghan firms, White Eagle Security Services and Abdul Khaliq Achakzai, are also on the list. The remaining two companies are small operations with fewer than 100 employees, so he declined to name them.
Xe, at least, has been the subject of investigations. In February, U.S. Senate investigators said Xe hired violent drug users to help train the Afghan army and declared "sidearms for everyone" — even though employees weren't authorized to carry weapons. The allegations came as part of an investigation into the 2009 shooting deaths of two Afghan civilians by employees of the company.
Omar said many of the firms had turned in weapons, some voluntarily. He did not say why the eight firms had been chosen as the first to be closed down, or if any international firms had actually left the country. A statement issued by the president's office was more strongly worded, saying that the process of closing down the eight companies was "almost complete."
An owner of White Eagle, Sayed Maqsud, said his firm had handed over weapons for a contract that had finished but was still employing guards under another contract.
"We are not shut down. Only we gave up 340 weapons," Maqsud said, explaining that the company's contract to guard fuel convoys for American troops in southern Helmand province had ended. He said he fired 530 guards who had been working under that program when the contract finished and handed over the leftover guns to the government.
He said, however, they have another 1,200 guards protecting cell phone towers for South Africa-based mobile phone company MTN, and said he plans to continue that unless the government says they have to close down.
"According to the decree of Karzai, still we have two months until December. We don't know what will happen after that," Maqsud said. He said he was angry at being lumped in with militias.
"We are not warlords. We are normal people. We started at the beginning from zero. After four years we had 2,000 people. I am very proud that I gave an opportunity to 2,000 people to work," he said. None of the employees Maqsud let go joined the police, he said — noting that the pay is low and police are targeted by insurgents in Helmand.
"I think most of them joined the Taliban," Maqsud said.
None of the other companies named could be immediately reached for comment.
Karzai's original decree gave an exemption to companies used to guard the compounds of international embassies or organizations, and Omar said the disbanding process does not apply to these organizations. It was unclear what this means for companies on the list that also have contracts to guard U.S. government installations or other diplomatic missions.
Omar said the government was focused on security companies that are providing protection for highways or convoys, not those training Afghan forces or guarding embassies.
"We would like to be able at some point to be able to provide security for embassies and international organizations," but the security forces are not yet able to do so, he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it was looking into what the decision would mean for U.S. government contracts.
"We are looking closely at the implications of today's announcements. We are going to continue working closely with the government to ensure that the safety and security of our personnel is preserved as the decree is implemented," spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The Afghan government has estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 armed security guards are working in the country.
The Interior Ministry has 52 security firms licensed, but some older contracts are still being completed by unlicensed firms, according to the U.S. military. About half of the companies are Afghan-owned.
About 37 companies are working with the U.S. government, with about 26,000 armed security guards. The majority of those work for the military, though some are employed by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the military.
NATO forces and Western diplomats have cautiously backed the Afghan plan to dissolve private security firms — praising the push by the Afghan government to take control of its security but warning that it should happen only as fast as conditions allow.
The gap left by the contractors will have to be filled by Afghan police or soldiers — putting more demands on forces that are pushing to expand substantially in the next few years so that they can take the lead in the country's security by 2014.
Afghan officials say the expansion is on track, but the Afghan army and police are still widely seen as hobbled by a lack of education, drug abuse and corruption.
The push also comes as much of the country has gotten more dangerous. The Taliban now regularly launches attacks in formerly peaceful northern provinces and a U.S. troop surge in the south has been accompanied by rising troop casualties and civilian deaths.