In 2014, the performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be under intense scrutiny. However, it is also high time for another key element of the Afghan security set up to be evaluated: the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF). The 20,000 men strong, state run security program in the past two years has – with few exceptions – replaced the private security companies (PSCs) and taken over the protection of strategic international assets, particularly NATO logistic convoys. While almost everybody has recognised the importance of the APPF, many raise doubts as to its effectiveness in the face of delays and increased costs. Now, the APPF’s very survival as a separate program seems to be questioned, as the Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced that the force is to be integrated into the Afghan National Police (ANP). Fabrizio Foschini reports for AAN about the ‘state of the art’ of the program.
March has traditionally been the month for deadlines or announcements regarding the APPF, and 2014 is no exception. As reported by a Wall Street Journal article, on Monday, 4 March, the MoI spokesperson, Sediq Seddiqi, announced the dissolution of the APPF as a state-run enterprise, saying that the “APPF will remain within the scope and mandate of ANP to provide security” and that the salaries of the APPF guards – once met by the clients of the program – “will be paid by the Afghan government”. Waiting to see how this will translate into practice, AAN examines the establishment of the APPF and the challenges and choices that this program faced.
The story of the APPF program
The concept of the APPF was first developed in mid-2008, arguably by Masum Stanekzai, then presidential advisor on internal security, as a way to provide static guard details to embassies and other foreign and government facilities and to replace the vast array of PSCs and Afghan security forces then manning them. During the tenure of Hanif Atmar as minister of interior small contingents of APPF were assigned as static guards to a small number of localised development projects across the country, but the project expanded slowly. (1)
A brand new start was provided by Decree 62, emanated by President Karzai on 17 August 2010 and announcing the future disbandment of all PSCs. The close working relationship established between the latter – often set up by former mujahedin commanders employing their militiamen – and the internationals had long constituted a favourite subject for criticism by the Afghan government, with more than some justification. (2) Apart from raising questions about national sovereignty and the state’s monopoly of power, the presence of PSCs, particularly of those engaged in convoy security over risky stretches of road, has often proven disruptive. Some PSCs were resorting to a whole set of criminal practices ranging from paying the Taleban to gain safe passage to staging fake insurgent attacks to eliminate rivals or increase their hiring wages. A few months before Decree 62, the US Congress report, “Warlords Inc.”, documented these practices, while shortly afterwards a US Senate report exposed the links between a US-contracted PSC and the Taleban in Shindand district of Herat.
These critical views, unfortunately, did not prevent a number of top-ranking members of the Afghan government from themselves developing and running their own PSCs (read here) – or having them run by relatives and associates – nor did they prevent the international firms and organisations from defending the need for the PSCs and vocally opposing their disbandment when it was announced. The PSCs’ clients would shelter themselves behind the fact that the Afghan government had licensed them, and therefore was responsible for their beaviour – choosing to ignore the eventuality of licences obtained through bribes or political connections. (3)
Decree 62, however, left its mark and, notwithstanding the chorus of protests from international partners worried about potential security fallouts and the very unlikely initial deadline of four months, the APPF slowly came into existence. A bridging strategy was agreed upon in March 2011 – and subsequently reviewed – to safely reach new deadlines by which APPF would have relieved the PSCs of their duties. These deadlines were scheduled for March 2012 for development site and supply convoy security (including ISAF convoys) and for March 2013 for security on ISAF bases. Foreign diplomatic sites were allowed to retain their PSCs.
Shortly before the March 2012 deadline, many PSCs were given an extension of up to three months to transition their guards to the APPF or to transform themselves into Risk Management Companies (RMCs). An APPF Advisory Group (AAG), created by ISAF after periodic assessments in late 2011 revealed the APPF to still be below NATO standards, obtained from the Afghan government this option for PSCs – provided they first disband and re-establish themselves as new legal entities. Many PSCs were thus able to keep a footing in the security business, being hired by the APPF’s customers to participate in vetting, training and managing the guards provided by the state program. (4) While this meant that some of the most contracted and connected PSCs were able to survive unscathed (read AAN’s previous blog here) for a few more years or to re-invent themselves as RMCs, it also allowed more time for the APPF to be better developed and deployed gradually.
The APPF as we know it today was thus deployed starting mainly from 2011. It took the form of a state-owned enterprise under the Ministry of Interior, tasked with replacing all the security duties of private security companies, and vetting, registering and re-integrating their employees when possible. The APPF does provide their guards with uniforms and weapons and a basic training, but leaves their day-to-day managing to the employers.
The APPF program was also meant to raise revenue. According to a former manager of the program interviewed by AAN, APPF was very successful until early 2013. By then, a total of 15,000 guards had then been enlisted (around 9,000 of them coming from disbanded PSC companies), and the force had sustained only five casualties in one year. Salaries were paid on time, contracts were ripe and the APPF had created a huge financial reserve of around 90 million USD. This former manager, however, insisted that the health of the program’s finances had been experiencing a steady decline by the time he left in mid-2013.
The program has been not so effective in quickly replacing private contractors in the many ISAF sites across the country. As of the end of 2013, only three ISAF facilities had seen security transitioned to the APPF (Camp Gamberi in Laghman, Bala Hissar in Kabul and New Kabul Compound), while some 40-odd are still left to the care of PSCs (read this Sigar report, p 90). Moreover, in Kabul only, a number of high-profile international compounds still make wide use of private security contractors. Altogether, at the end of 2013, some 14,000 security contractors were still employed by ISAF (which means, those officially listed), more than 80 per cent of them Afghan (according to an ISAF spokeswoman quoted here). (5) APPF, in comparison, employs a total number of slightly more than 20,000 APPF guards, as estimated at the end of 2013 by a SIGAR report – thus numbers are still below the MoI March 2013 objective of reaching 25,000 guards by integrating 13,000 former PSC employees. (6)
The most troublesome task for APPF to date, however, has been to accomplish their takeover of responsibility for road security, encroaching on the turf of powerful PSCs.
Tough market competition
“We were doing very well until we got involved in this convoy security, and we had to confront the mafia groups and half of the Afghan government for that,” an APPF official told AAN.
The APPF deployed its escorts to guard supply convoys gradually, starting with movements in the central and eastern zones. Problems started with the second phase of taking over the southern route to Kandahar. Crowded with well-established PSCs, it proved considerably troublesome. PSCs there have a long record of contracts with the US and, at least some of them – a very sketchy one. Reportedly, their activities included staged ‘Taleban’ attacks on strategic routes or sites in order to create incentives to hire them for protection, share deals with the real Taleban and ghost guards existing only on their cashbooks.
The lucre and the connections these PSCs had been enjoying obviously made them quite resentful of the deployment of the APPF. According to a former APPF official interviewed by AAN, a major obstacle existed for some time in Haji Kalimullah, the son of famed Arghandab mujahedin commander Mullah Naqibullah, owner of Afghan Maiwand Company and also closely acquainted with President Karzai (see background here). The APPF eventually had its way, and responsibility over the road between Kabul and Kandahar was secured – although, as we will see, problems continued. Different high-profile connections, this time reportedly within a ministry in Kabul, helped another company – Arya, based in Herat and owned by the prominent Qatali family – to successfully delay the handover of more westerly routes, namely the stretch between the border crossing of Torghundi (Herat) and Bala Buluk (Farah).
Another problem that arose in 2012-2013 was the competition between two major international supply companies: Supreme, which had enjoyed the US Department of Defense (DoD) logistics contract (that is, to provide all food service and food supply logistics to deployed US troops) since 2005, and Anham, which was awarded the contract in 2012. The competition between the two companies proved disruptive for the APPF program.
According to APPF officials, Supreme had never been particularly keen to accept the forced collaboration with APPF. Supreme’s modus operandi during the past years had been quite different from the newly-introduced APPF model. Over its many years of activity in Afghanistan, Supreme had established close working partnerships with a number of Afghan sub-contractors, including some of the PSCs most reluctant to give ground to the APPF. They charged the US government per guard, while the APPF fees for convoy escort are calculated per mission, each ‘mission’ consisting of a 50-km stretch per truck. So, while back in the US in February 2013, Supreme challenged the decision to award the DoD contract to Anham, thus stalling the commencement of transfer arrangements for three months, its Afghan partners tried to keep on running their operations as before. In fact, during the spring and summer of 2013, APPF officials reported to AAN several instances of unauthorised supply convoys leaving Kabul at night – usually on Thursday nights to take advantage of the weekend’s laxer controls – to elude government control and to avoid having to travel with APPF, relying rather on their previous PSC partners.
After the initial concerns and protests, the US government decided to support the implementation of the APPF program, but the US military commands in Afghanistan seem to have had afterthoughts every time the distribution network was imperilled by delays in the APPF’s capacity to reach the required standards for deployment or by Anham’s slow build-up. As an APPF official lamented in July 2013, “the main concern of the US commands in Afghanistan seems to be to make sure that no food consignment for their bases, not even an ice-cream, gets delayed, rather than supporting a program they have agreed is vital to the strengthening of the Afghan government, which should be their mandate here.” Supreme was thus able to retain part of the US logistics delivery with a bridging contract while Anham built up its operational levels. (7)
The APPF’s own shortcomings
Political lobbying, real or alleged, bore its tail of accusations and mistrust and played a part in making sure that the APPF had an ever-changing and only weak leadership – with the crippling effect experienced by so many other Afghan institutions and programs. Gen. Jamil Jombesh, appointed deputy minister of interior for the APPF in October 2012, was sacked in April 2013. Apparently, he was punished for allowing the Arya security company to continue its operations in the western provinces (read here). This accusation was rejected by many of Jombesh’s collaborators on the basis that he had answered to a generic request by ISAF to allow more time to PSCs before APPF was able to expand into the western tract. The general’s western origin made the allegation more plausible: Jombesh hails from Farah, although there needs not necessarily be much love lost between him, with his PDPA background, and the Herati mujahedin who own Arya. After this sudden discharge, he was briefly recalled to fill his position for a few months before his definitive replacement in September 2013. He was succeeded by Gen. Abdul Nasser Sediqi, who had already held the post before.
According to the director of a Risk Management Company involved in training and managing APPF, a major problem within the APPF structure is the stark separation between the finance and operation departments. This amounts almost to a sociological distance: the first is staffed with young and educated professionals from civilian backgrounds, fully business-oriented and proficient in English. They also enjoy relatively high salaries. The operatives, on the other hand, “just fight”, come from an army background, speak no English, receive less pay and are not over-concerned with marketing strategies and customers’ demands. According to the RMC source, the APPF’s military cadres lack of a business-oriented attitude has caused the force to lose many potential clients.
At a lower level of leadership, things do not seem to work perfectly either. Some Afghan and expat contractors AAN talked to are less critical of the quality of non-commissioned officers and officers of the APPF units they work with than the opinions expressed by the SIGAR report. However, they also have many problems to report, ranging from disorganisation within the APPF ranks, which cause delays to convoys and to the payment of the salaries to the guards, to low-level corruption schemes.
For example, a simple ruse practiced by APPF officers would allow some trucks from a company to secretly join APPF-escorted convoys some miles after their start, and to leave them unnoticed shortly before the destination in order to enjoy the protection but avoid registering and paying the full amount due. For example, some would join the convoy only after Maidan Shahr in Wardak province and leave it right in view of the gates of Kandahar. From the money that the company thus saves, a share would be pocketed by the commanding officer of the APPF escort.
One of the main critiques of the APPF in a SIGAR report last year is that, in giving the state a monopoly over the security business, the transition to APPF implies augmented costs for international partners to run their projects in safety. Also, it accuses the APPF of charging its fees inconsistently, according to the criteria of personal relations with the customers, and that some implementing partners have been able to negotiate better prices than others. Indeed, a most concerning development for the APPF would be an inability to prove economically sustainable. The program’s good financial start could have been put under duress by a loss of customers and by internal corruption.
A 2012 paper by Matthieu Aikins rightly pointed to another, political danger: that the transition of the protection business to APPF threatens the stability of the political balance among Afghan powerbrokers, a big part of whose economy is based on PSCs. He ventured further, asking
…whether APPF will co-opt these groups, or vice versa – that is, whether the absorption of major powerbrokers and their patronage networks into APPF will corrupt the institution, given the powerful financial interests involved in maintaining the status quo in areas where local strongmen reap large cuts of international spending.
That personnel transitioning from PSCs cannot attain a high rank inside the APPF (in fact, they were all integrated as simple guards) has probably been effective in constituting a bulwark against a direct penetration of the APPF by private power networks. The balance seemed to be much more to the disadvantage of the APPF at a higher level, where the political elites with vested interests in the security business have been able to resist its deployment. They could not dismiss openly a program hailed by every side as one of national importance, but they boycotted it locally and exerted pressures at the top levels to influence its leadership.
In fact, appointments and ranking policies that favour cadres with a professional military background might have kept APPF free of direct co-optation by private networks, but would not guarantee to the program unhindered effectiveness. Anecdotal evidence and analogy to other branches of the Afghan institutions suggest that even motivated leaders quickly lose momentum when confronted with the impossibility of taking on stronger powers, like the PSC ‘mafia’. They may actually realise the instability of their own tenure in the face of the opposition, and thus ‘assuage’ their frustration by turning to corrupted practices to secure a good exit for themselves.
Creating a stable, committed and empowered leadership at the top, capable of finding the right balance between institution-building and revenue-raising within the APPF program should have been a priority for the Afghan government. Despite its many problems, the program offered some chances of sorting out that most central sector of the war economy of Afghanistan – the security business. The continued avenues for private participation in it – if nothing else, as RMCs – might have reduced fallouts from within the circle of armed powerbrokers connected to the political elites of the country. At the same time, the gradual takeover of the most heavily armed part of the security business, if not hampered further or reversed, could have lessened the existing risks of these armed non-state actors going out of control or serving political purposes through violent means. These can prove very important boons at the critical time of a major political transition in the country like the presidential election of April 2014 and its aftermath.
The question is whether the mentioned obstacles have distanced the APPF from its ideal effectiveness to the point where the program will be abandoned. Notwithstanding the MoI announcement, a total elimination of the APPF is difficult to imagine in the short-term. The statement seemed to affect mainly the financial struture of the APPF – and while this creates concerns about possible holes in the program’s accountability – it is less likely that the force will be disbanded any time soon. Afghan experience shows that it is quite unlikely that any government program, once started, is abandoned completely, provided that there is any residual funding or political interest in keeping it alive. Also, it is difficult to imagine a replacement for it. A US army spokesperson quoted by the WSJ stated, “At present, the APPF is still providing convoy security escorts with no plan to cease.” However, she added, they were evaluating their options: providing their own security or using contract security.
These few comments succeed in raising many questions. What will happen to the RMCs? Will they be still asked to mentor the APPF units once these are paid and – arguably more closely managed – by the ministry as normal police? Will they be allowed to take over more of the previous type of PSCs’ duties – especially given that many of them were previously such? What will happen to that army of jobless and potentially troublesome private security guards – which some put at 70,000 – some more of whom could have been integrated into the APPF program, either as RMCs personnel or as APPF guards?
It is highly unlikely that the controversial PSC system will be officially re-instated by any Afghan government in the near future, no matter how much regulated and made profitable through the raising of taxes from the companies. On the other hand, any last minute, emergency-driven new government strategy to boost security on the roads would probably prove useless, or even risky, also given the present critical conditions of road security.
Until now, in fact, we have only considered ‘internal’ challenges. The factors at play are not only the impending transition and the risk of shutdown that may affect many international projects in the wake of it, and the consequent loss of revenue for the APPF, or the manipulation of the program by powerbrokers with their own agendas. There are other security issues at stake, too. Overall road security has been consistently spiralling downward in Afghanistan over the past few years (read our previous blog here and about a related protest here). For its part, after a soft start in 2012, the APPF paid a high price of lives in 2013 (as the other Afghan security forces), especially after moving into the southern supply route security. Most of the attacks it sustained from insurgent forces took place in what are possibly the most dangerous spots of the Kabul-Kandahar highway: the Sayedabad district of Wardak and Zabul province.
The insurgents’ strong focus on the government’s and ISAF’s communication lines is not new. Their grip over Afghanistan’s transportation system, and thus over the life and the economy of whole provinces, would undoubtedly be strengthened by a failure of the APPF program. The Taleban ascent to power started, back in 1994, with a very loud claim laid to the restoration of road security, dismantling the predatory roadblocks established by rogue commanders. Not by chance, they have been the ones who first recognised the strategic value of disrupting it in more recent years – something they managed well, with the help, more or less intentional, of ISAF supply strategies, predatory behaviour by PSCs and corrupted government officials. Let’s not have the APPF’s failure added to the list.
(1) The APPF was partially inspired by the similarly named Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3), which however was more of the type of community defence unit initiative, then in its heyday. Raised and deployed mainly in Wardak province it yielded controversial results: to boost recruitment efforts, the old fighting unit of a former mujahedin – then Taleban commander and MP 2005-10, Musa Mohammad Hotak – was basically reintegrated en masse into the AP3. For more details see this AAN paper.
(2) For the history and significance of the presence of PSCs in Afghanistan read this chapter of AAN’s e-book “Snapshots of an Intervention”.
(3) However, some (seven) of the PSCs most visibly linked to members of the government were the first to be targeted by disbandment in 2011 (read a Killid report here).
(4) The first to get licenses as RMCs from the MoI in 2012, were Separ, Edinburgh Int., Pilgrims Group, Scimitar and Silk Route. (http://www.afghanwarnews.info/security/appf.htm). The APPF website gives a list of 35 licensed RMCs, while 11 companies are still in the waiting list after having applied for licensing.
(5) Contrary to other war theatres that see a massive use of security contractors like Iraq, where third-country nationals rank first, Afghans have always provided for an overwhelming majority of the ‘guns for hire’ in their country.
(6) According to this SIGAR report (p. 163), the number of APPF requirements for the extractive sector are as follows:
Afghan Tajik (Takhar), 600
Sheberghan gas (Sheberghan), 250
Amu Darya (Sheberghan/Faryab), 600
Kushk (Herat), 300
Qara Zaghan (Baghlan), 50
Balkhab (Sar-e Pol/Samangan), 200-300
Shaida (Herat), 200
Hajigak (Bamian/Wardak), 600
Aynak (Logar), 1750
Zarkashan (Ghazni), 450
(7) As the newcomer to the Afghan environment, Anham seems to have been at a disadvantage against its rival, lacking the connections and the ‘diplomatic best practices’ to make progress in the rough competition. Anham employees lamented experiencing many problems in their build-up phase, when the land they had purchased in Bagram, for example, ended up in a legal dispute after locals filed a suit against the company – a move which some have interpreted as politically motivated. The gap seems to have been finally bridged in June 2013, when Anham hired former Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin as its CEO. His diplomatic skills were no doubt helpful in solving local issues and working out a sort of temporary sharing agreement on the DoD with Supreme (who also retains catering for restaurants and residential complexes like the Green Village).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020