OTTAWA - The federal government has warned bidders on a high-profile reconstruction project in Afghanistan that they will largely be responsible for their own security, raising the prospect that private security firms will form the first line of defence against the Taliban.
The Harper government announced last month that the refurbishment of the Dahla Dam will be one of Canada's "signature" projects in Kandahar province. Canada has promised to invest as much as $50 million over three years to repair the long-neglected dam and its irrigation system, which supplies most of the farmers in the province.
Military commanders in Afghanistan have insisted the Canadian Forces will play an active role in protecting the dam, which observers expect to become a prime target for the Taliban.
Tender documents released Monday, however, show the contractor hired to fix the dam can expect limited support from the Canadian military and the NATO-led coalition.
Bidders are warned that the Taliban has shifted to "small-scale, asymmetric" tactics such as attacks on Afghan security forces, and "in some cases civilians." Nevertheless, the dam contractor will be expected to provide primary security at the project site.
"In the event of an emergency the military will provide a quick reaction force, but close support is the responsibility of the consultant, and the police may be the appropriate responder in many cases," states a request for proposals prepared by the Canadian International Development Agency.
The winning bidder must ensure that any security personnel comply with guidelines for private security companies recently established by the Afghan government, as well as relevant provisions of international humanitarian law, the request for proposals notes.
In outsourcing security to private firms, the Canadian government appears to be following the Iraq model for reconstruction projects, said David Perry, one of the few experts on military contractors in Canada. The use of private security firms to protect such projects has been considered standard operating procedure in Iraq, he said.
"This is what led to the big boom in the guards with guns in Iraq," said Perry, deputy director for the Centre of Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. "They had to protect all these billions of dollars of projects to rebuild the country, because there weren't enough troops."
One of the problems with the Iraq model is that much of the money intended for reconstruction has actually been spent on security contractors, he added.
Private security firms have invited the greatest controversy in Iraq. Last fall, employees of Blackwater USA, hired to guard a convoy of U.S. State Department officials, opened fire in a Baghdad square, allegedly killing at least 17 civilians.
The Afghan government has complained of private security contractors flouting Afghan law, and has established a new set of rules that requires such firms to register their employees and weapons, among other things.
"Primary security" includes the protection of all project workers, as well as the site itself, according to the request for proposals.
Bidders are cautioned not to rely on the Canadian military for most basic services. "The total amount of military resources in Kandahar province is very limited. The consultant should not expect food service, laundry, postal, accommodations, or any type of service to be provided by the military."
The military will provide medical services in the event of an attack, but the contractor is responsible for "general medical coverage."
In Helmand province, NATO forces have expended considerable time and effort protecting the Kajaki Dam.
The Dahla Dam is located in the Arghandab River valley, the site of some of the fiercest fighting between Canadian Forces and Taliban insurgents this year. Canadian troops were forced to launch a major operation last month after the Taliban claimed several towns in the Arghandab district.
"It's a prescription for disaster, and who benefits in the end?" said New Democrat MP Paul Dewar. "What's our role there if not to provide security through the Canadian Forces?"
Ottawa has hired a number of British-based firms to provide private security in Afghanistan. A British firm called Saladin Security, for example, protects the Canadian embassy in Kabul. But the military has refused to identify all the private-security contractors it employs, in part because some of them are Afghan contractors and the military says identifying them would endanger them.
The status-of-forces agreement between Canada and Afghanistan signed in December 2005 suggests contractors are governed by Canadian, not Afghan, law. According to the agreement, civilian contractors hired by the Canadian government are considered Canadian personnel, who are "immune from personal arrest or detention" in Afghanistan without the consent of the senior Canadian military commander in Afghanistan.
© Canwest News Service 2008