Trigger-Happy Security Guards Complicate Afghan Convoys

Published on
by
the Army Times

Trigger-Happy Security Guards Complicate Afghan Convoys

by
Sean D. Naylor

HUTAL, Afghanistan - Ill-disciplined private security guards
escorting supply convoys to coalition bases are wreaking havoc as they
pass through western Kandahar province, undermining the coalition's
counterinsurgency strategy here and leading to at least one
confrontation with U.S. forces, say U.S. Army officers and Afghan
government officials.

The security guards are responsible for
killing and wounding more than 30 innocent civilians during the past
four years in Maywand district alone, said Mohammad Zareef, the senior
representative in the district for Afghanistan's intelligence service,
the National Directorate of Security.

Highway 1, the country's
main east-west artery, runs through Maywand and is the route taken by
logistics convoys moving west from Kabul and Kandahar to coalition
bases in Helmand province. The Afghan government's district chief for
Maywand says the men hired to protect the convoys are heroin addicts
armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

The
contractors' actions are frustrating U.S. military leaders in Maywand
and undermining coalition efforts to bring a greater sense of security
to the Afghan people, particularly because the locals associate the
contractors with the coalition.

"They'll start firing at anything
that's moving, and they will injure or kill innocent Afghans, and
they'll destroy property," said Lt. Col. Jeff French, commander of 2nd
Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment and Task Force Legion, the main
coalition force in Maywand since mid-September. French has vowed to
take tough action against contractors involved in violent acts against
civilians.

Afghan personnel

The problem of out-of-control
security contractors operating at cross-purposes to the coalition's
counterinsurgency strategy is similar to the one that dogged the U.S.
military and its allies in Iraq, with one major difference: unlike
Iraq, where there were a series of high-profile incidents involving
U.S. security personnel, here the guards causing the problems are
Afghans.

About twice a week convoys up to 50 vehicles long pass
through Maywand en route to coalition bases in Helmand carrying fuel
and other bulk goods coming from the Pakistani port city of Karachi,
said Capt. Casey Thoreen, commander of 2-1 Infantry's B Company, which
operates from Combat Outpost Rath, located less than 100 meters from
Highway 1 in the town of Hutal.

Although the convoys sometimes
carry U.S. military vehicles and represent a vital lifeline for the
coalition effort, no Afghan, U.S. or other coalition military forces
accompany them. Instead, each convoy is protected by Afghan security
guards armed with AK-series assault rifles and rocket-propelled
grenades in sport utility vehicles - "black 4Runners, full of guys in
these tan uniforms, with lots of guns sticking out of them," Thoreen
said. "These guys are like gun-toting mercenaries with probably not a
whole lot of training. ... They're just light on the trigger finger."

Haji
Obidullah Bawari, the Afghan government's district chief for Maywand,
rendered an even harsher judgment. "Most of them are addicted to
heroin," he said.

Until recently, the identities of the companies
for whom the security guards worked remained shrouded in mystery, even
from the coalition headquarters whose troops they are supplying. French
said he requested information on the companies through his higher
brigade headquarters - 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division - but
had yet to receive any word back.

An International Security
Assistance Force spokesman said the convoy security workers are
employees of the logistics contractors running the convoys. Those
contractors work for one or several of the ISAF, NATO or 26 countries
operating in Afghanistan. As a result, he said he did not know how much
is spent on the security firms or which companies had hired them.

Asked
about allegations of heroin use and improper conduct, ISAF spokesman
Col. Wayne M. Shanks said that while neither ISAF nor Regional
Command-South has a vetting role in the selection of the security
guards, "all credible allegations of improper actions by contractors
are fully investigated."

Over the past several weeks, local
leaders have voiced complaints about the security contractors,
prompting French to ask more questions about the contractors' behavior.
He said the answers he received troubled him.

Out-of-control guards

"They
roll through, and if they see something that seems like a threat to
them, or they feel that they're under attack, the local Afghans are
saying that they just start to lase and blaze," French said. "They
don't stop, they don't wait for the police to come and do an
investigation or anything; they just take off."

Among incidents this year involving the security guards in Maywand, according to Zareef, the NDS chief:

  • On May 9, contractors shot dead an Afghan National Policeman manning a checkpoint on Highway 1, then drove away.
  • Contractors left their broken-down car for a night at a gas station and
    found the next morning that insurgents had burned it. In their anger,
    the security guards turned their guns on the local population. "They
    started shooting and killed a kid," Zareef said.
  • On March 28,
    speeding contractors killed a local man and his wife, and injured their
    child, when the security guards' SUV hit the motorcycle on which the
    family was riding.
  • Afghans arrested a convoy security guard for the March 4 killing of a kuchi, or nomadic herder.

Zareef's accounts were consistent with the reports received by U.S. commanders.

"We're
getting fairly consistent complaints about them," Thoreen said.
"Everybody knows somebody who's been shot by the contractors."

When the Taliban hit their targets, the security guards show little compassion for their wounded, French said.

"They
will literally dump them on the road out here," he said. Those who come
to the base seeking medical aid get it and "on several occasions" the
U.S. forces medically evacuated them to more sophisticated coalition
medical facilities.

"There's no give-a-s- factor in them when it
comes to their employees," he said. The firms' attitude was: "Good luck
- it sucks to be you. You're in Maywand. We're kicking you to the curb."

Taking on the problem

French
said he is planning to turn the issue to his advantage by taking a hard
line with the convoy escorts, demonstrating the value of coalition and
Afghan security forces to the local population. He said that at a
"shura" meeting called to discuss security issues with local leaders,
he committed himself to trying to solve the contractor problem.

French
told the local leaders that he had ordered his troops that if they
received credible reports of security guards shooting at civilians,
they were to move immediately to the site and investigate the incident
by talking to Afghan security forces, local civilians and the convoy
escorts.

"If ... we feel that they were acting inappropriately and
endangering people in this district, my intent is to basically take
control of those individuals in that convoy, bring them back to Ramrod
and lock them up in here ... call their company, make sure we can get
some kind of an understanding regarding their operations, and then my
guys will personally escort them out of Maywand district," French said.

On
Nov. 15, French was able to back up his words with action. After
receiving word of shooting from the vicinity of Highway 1 as three
convoys were rolling through Maywand, 2-1 Infantry's quick reaction
force set up a checkpoint on the highway outside the battalion's
headquarters at Forward Operating Base Ramrod and pulled over two of
the convoys at gunpoint before taking the two convoys' security chiefs
into the base for questioning.

One security chief, Fidal
Mohammed, claimed to have 48 men under arms. He said he worked for a
company called DIAK, said 2-1 Infantry's executive officer, Maj. Dave
Abrahams, who conducted the meetings. Mohammed also gave Abrahams the
names of several other companies that work the convoy escort business
along Highway 1. The other security chief, who gave his name as Lalai,
said he worked for a company called Angar and commanded 52 armed men.

Abrahams
said he told each man that Task Force Legion would not tolerate
misconduct by security companies along Highway 1 and that "any reports
of security convoys firing on civilians or indiscriminately into the
villages will be investigated and wrongdoers will be punished."

Speaking
before the Nov. 15 episode, French said he was hoping to achieve
"multiple effects" by confronting the contractors. "Most of the
positive effects will be the populace seeing us taking action to
protect them," he said.

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