Fed up with corruption, bureaucratic nightmares and government restrictions, Western security contractors are putting the 10-year war in Afghanistan behind them for the world’s latest hotspot, Libya.
Tony Johnson, general manager for Amtex Global Services at its Afghanistan headquarters in the southern province of Kandahar, is one of those keen to move, but says his company is still looking for viable Libyan contacts.
He’s worked all over the world and been in Afghanistan for two years, coinciding with the United States dramatically escalating its military presence in the fight against the Taliban and now, as it starts to lower troop numbers.
“Afghanistan – it’s just painful,” Johnson told AFP by telephone from the company’s main base next to the sprawling U.S.-led Kandahar Air Field.
His firm does logistics and construction. They also have a charter aircraft company, a private security company and a risk consultancy, he says.
“It’s very difficult to make things move. Obviously the corruption plays a big part – I’m not just talking about money, but the bureaucratic system is so stupid, for want of a better word,” he said.
“We don’t know where it’s going and in the security business there are so many stupid restrictions coming into play.”
The 2001 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent fall of the Taliban opened up a goldmine for private security contractors, who won deals to guard embassies and NATO convoys, and offered logistical and consultancy services.
A U.S. congressional report in March found that the number of private security personnel working for the U.S. military in Afghanistan rose to 18,919 at the end of 2010, the highest level used in any conflict by the United States.
Around 95 percent of them were Afghans, it added.
But relations with the authorities have deteriorated. President Hamid Karzai accuses the firms of breaking the law and taking business away from Afghans.
Perceptions that those working for security firms are little more than gun-toting mercenaries, roaming the countryside with impunity, have made them deeply unpopular among Afghans.
This year, a U.S. federal judge sentenced a former Blackwater security guard to 30 months in prison for shooting and killing an Afghan citizen in 2009.
In another example, Armor Group North America Inc., providing security at the U.S. embassy, had to pay $7.5 million to settle claims that its guards visited brothels in Kabul with the knowledge of company officials.
In March, the Kabul government said that 45 security companies would have to be replaced by Afghan government forces in a year, putting a further squeeze on private contractors.
The mechanics of that decree have not been worked out. Even less clear is the future of Afghanistan as U.S. troops eye a full combat withdrawal in 2014.
“Private security companies will be looking at moving their better personnel to a potentially more profitable theatre because of all the uncertainties here,” said one adviser in the business.
Libya’s oil wealth and the prospect of prolonged instability are likely to keep foreign security firms in business for some time.
“While the country (Libya) is in an unstable position, there's going to be plenty of work for companies like ours,” said Johnson.
Another Western security company official, who only agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, said: “Friends have gone out. Libya’s a different kettle of fish, it's not smashed to pieces by 30 years of war.
“They’ve got educated people. They know how to build things, you’ve got institutions over there.”
He described Afghanistan, where he has spent eight years, as a “nightmare.”
“I’ve had a gut full of it... It’s harder to get people to come here. It’s hard to get good staff. You're constantly being forced to pay bribes and things like this.
“It’s hard to keep positive. I’ve got some contracts here so I have to stay for some time, but there is an emerging market in Libya.”
Since the decree, the adviser said the de facto price of a six-month visa had shot up from $180 to $500-$1,000, owing to all the backhanders required to get paperwork done fast enough to rotate staff in and out.
Government demands for new uniforms and transparent windows fitted in all vehicles, as well as endless Kafkaesque bureaucratic loopholes, meant companies were shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars, the adviser said.
“Security companies are making negative profit here now because of the amount of money that's had to be paid to the different ministries,” he said.
“Talking to the guys here, no one can see any future here.”