Afghans Are Fed Up With Security Firm

Residents of a Kabul neighborhood say they feel they are under occupation as DynCorp barricades a street and conducts searches.

By Hamida Ghafour

Los Angeles Times

September 27, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — The entrance to Khailmohmad Safi's garage is blocked by about 200 sandbags, and a few feet away, behind 8-foot-high concrete barriers, several heavily armed men talk into their radios and peer out into the street.

The setting looks like the gateway to a military base. Instead, it is a street in the middle of one of the capital's most affluent neighborhoods. The road contains the residential compound of the DynCorp security firm.

The Virginia-based contractor, which provides security guards for interim President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has good reason to maintain strong security — its nearby office was bombed Aug. 29 and about 10 people were killed, including three Americans.

But some residents of the Shar-i-Naw neighborhood have become fed up with the barriers erected by DynCorp to restrict access to their street.

The residents complain that they and their guests are unfairly searched before being allowed to get to the ir homes and businesses. They worry about becoming the victims of a terrorist attack on DynCorp facilities.

As a result, they want the firm to move.

"I feel like we are under an occupation," Safi said. "This is a residential area, and we are civilians. I'm worried we will be hit by a rocket. We had visiting guests come but when they saw the Americans with guns they became so scared they turned around and left."

The complaints underscore the growing resentment and concerns about Americans in Kabul less than three years after U.S.-led forces were welcomed as liberators. In late 2001, images of men jubilantly shaving off the beards the oppressive Taliban regime had forced them to grow were broadcast across the world, and children in the streets ran alongside convoys of U.S. tanks, waving.

But attitudes may be changing, in part because of the security issue and the behavior of some employees of the private security firms. The problem has reached the point that the U.S. Embassy is f orming a committee to address the issue of Afghan perceptions of Americans, a Western official said.

Heated debates abound in teashops and bazaars about security contractors — many of whom drive aggressively, block off streets without notification, wear military fatigues and wraparound shades and appear to randomly point weapons at residents on congested streets.

"This is being looked at by the highest levels in the U.S. Embassy, including the ambassador and his staff," said the Western official. "As in any relationship, the first bloom of love may have worn off but hopefully there is still a great deal of affection."

In Safi's case, his carpentry shop was ordered shut after part of his street was closed.

"I had a small shop that I rented to a carpenter. The Americans didn't trust the carpenter and told him to leave, and I had to close the store," he said. "I earned 3,000 afghanis [about $70] a month and the money was used to support my family and five children, but I can't make ends meet now."

DynCorp refused to comment.

Safi's son, Atal, 19, said his guests and female relatives are forced to undergo searches.

"In our tradition it is bad that women are coming and their bags are checked," he said. "When our guests come to our homes their bags are checked, it takes an hour. Then they, the Americans, come to my house, ask what I am doing, who my guests are and why they are coming. We are not terrorists."

There are believed to be hundreds of private security contractors in Afghanistan. For example, London-based Global Risk Strategies, which is also in Iraq, is helping the United Nations organize the Oct. 9 elections by assessing security in some of the most dangerous parts of the country, where support for the Taliban remains strong.

But some other security contracting businesses engage in a murkier trade, and there are no laws governing their conduct. Some contractors work on their own, as bounty hunters, hoping to cash in on the $50-million reward for Osama bin Laden.

Jonathan K. Idema is believed to have been one such freelance bounty hunter. Idema, an American, was ordered this month in an Afghan court to serve a 10-year sentence for running a private prison in which he interrogated detainees for information about the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Many security contractors earn lucrative salaries — as much as $2,000 a day — to protect top ambassadors and senior members of the Afghan government.

DynCorp is also helping to train the new Afghan army, which may be why it was targeted in the August bombing. The State Department hired the company in 2002 to protect Karzai after an assassination attempt in his home province of Kandahar. There was another attempt on Karzai's life this month, when a rocket was fired at his helicopter.

Khalilzad recently expressed concern about the behavior of some contractors.

"They are unofficial ambassadors of the United Sta tes, and we need to balance security with other concerns, the need for being open, respecting civilian Afghans, in the way we drive and conduct ourselves," he said. "At the same time we need to be mindful there are people out there who do not wish us well. This will be a constant struggle."

Outside the embassy's imposing compound there is a sign that reads: "The U.S. Embassy would be grateful if any of our friends who have information on terrorist activity or threat information would please come to this gate between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon on Sunday through Thursday."

The sign is an indication of the battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans. Taliban insurgents are distributing propaganda against Westerners, including circulating rumors that American soldiers recently threw hand grenades into crowds of protesters in the western province of Herat.

When American private contractors behave aggressively, it confirms the worst suspicions in the minds of some Afghans, said one Americ an observer.

It is also difficult for employees at the U.S. Embassy to combat such rumors partly because of tight security restrictions that prevent them from going out in public and putting a nonmilitary face on America's nation-building efforts, another official said. "We are somewhat hindered by how little we go out," he said.

Syed Miraqa Sadat, 33, another neighborhood resident, said he complained to the Interior Ministry about the restrictions but nothing was done.

"If our own government cannot do anything, it feels like we are being occupied," he said. "Americans came here to support us, and for peace, but we didn't expect this."

Nazar Mohmad Khazak, 81, who has lived on the street for 44 years, compared life with the security contractors to the Russian occupation of the 1980s.

"We are scared of the Americans," he said. "The Russians were here for 10 years and their military stations were out of the city, not among families. I passed the difficulties of the Rus sian occupation. But as difficult as that was, it wasn't as hard as this."