Along with the rapid and tumultuous recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban since U.S. President Joe Biden announced in mid-April the withdrawal of American troops from the country by September 11th, 2021, there has been a debate about the role security contractors will play in the future of the country. A key question some experts attempt to answer is if, moving forward, we will see more of less security contractors deployed, Secondly, what type of contractors are likely to be deployed, e.g., the Blackwater type, the Wagner Group type, the Chinese variant, or ICoCA certified type of firms.
As ever, it is positive to discuss issues like these. However, this is a premature debate. Currently, we can only venture to speculate alternative scenarios about the future of Afghanistan and the role international firms might play in it. If the incredibly swift and capricious pace of events has failed to convince you, international affairs no longer unfold in the linear way we were used to in the past –e.g., the intelligence community’s myopic linearity failed to foresee the Taliban reaching Kabul before September 11th. Likewise, with the benefit of hindsight now everyone is talking about the huge strategic error President Biden made by withdrawing troops before transition plans were in place and the people entitled to, evacuated; yet, back in April, most key leaders were applauding the candour of his remarks.
The early appreciation of President Biden’s administration of the Afghan forces holding ground at least around the large cities has gone already in flames. In that scenario it was possible to imagine more security contractors deployed to protect humanitarian missions and commercial interests, as some commentators suggested. This view saw, in simple terms, American and NATO personnel being simply replaced by security contractors whilst the elected government entered negotiations with the Taliban. This view was underdeveloped right from the start, as it assumed everything else remaining equal and failed to take into consideration, for instance, the interests of other countries as well as belligerent and criminal groups likely to enter the theatre as soon as Afghanistan turned the page on the U.S.-led involvement.
Inevitably, the future of many of those humanitarian and commercial enterprises is now in question. Some will stay and continue despite the risk. However, can you freely run development projects designed for Western-leaning societies under Taliban rule? I hope we are wrong, but this is unlikely. Nevertheless, it seems relevant to highlight the above view as it has captured the imagination of some of the people interested in the evolving role of Private Military/Security Companies in Afghanistan. Against this backdrop, let us dig a little deeper into the analysis as this might facilitate for the reader to acquire a more critical view on the issues at hand.
The Taliban’s position – The Taliban had to take over Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, for many commentators to realise finally that the extent and shape of contractor (and humanitarian) involvement will be conditioned by the Taliban’s position concerning the future of the country. In parallel, the endless pool of local security guards has vanished –many former guards are in hiding and some are desperate to be evacuated. This is something that should have been understood earlier. Early perceptions of a strong or weak Taliban, or the Taliban spreading its mantle in a matter of weeks or months, were secondary to the fact that whatever happens over the next few months needs to go through that filter. For instance, the Taliban might not welcome the presence of private military/security personnel and decide to offer the required ‘protection’ themselves. Regarding this issue, for example, there are reports circulating that Taliban fighters are searching for and confiscating weapons from security guards.
The nation-building legacy –It is true the U.S. and NATO did not initially go into Afghanistan in a nation-building mission. President Biden has reiterated this. However, whether it is formally acknowledged or not, the coalition forces were effectively engaged in nation-building endeavours for over a decade. Accordingly, directly or indirectly contractor support moved hand in hand with those efforts, e.g., offering a security cover to humanitarian projects that sought to re-evaluate and reassert the important role women play in society as well as the training necessary to upgrade the bureaucratic and law enforcement infrastructure of the country, which was absent prior to the invasion.
We might like it or not, but decision to withdraw from the country taken during the Trump administration and emphatically reiterated by President Biden in effect discontinued this development path as well as interlinked contractor support. Whether the Taliban has evolved over the last two decades and will not devolve Afghanistan to the pre-invasion situation, a question incessantly being asked during the current news cycle, does not alter the fact than when the decision to withdraw was made (with no agreement with the Taliban to continue down this path) the U.S. and NATO effectively hit the reset button. This action abruptly derailed contractor support. If they return to Afghanistan and/or re-engage in a similar role in the future, it will not happen overnight. Meanwhile, scores of contractors are being hastily evacuated just like the people who were working in unrelated sectors.
United Nations involvement – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has been deployed since 2002. One of the most critical periods of the mission has been over the last few weeks, since reports started to circulate about human rights violations accompanying the Taliban advances. Indeed, the UN should play a more active role from now on. However, there are some caveats concerning what the UN can and cannot do on the ground as well as the interlinked contractor support now that the Taliban are back in power.
Broadly, for the UN to continue its involvement they would need to be welcomed by the (yet to be established, as we write) Taliban government–UNAMA current mandate expires on September 15, 2021. Secondly, this requires a mandate endorsed by the UN Security Council –China and Russia might not be as accommodating as in the past as they might want to play a more strategic role now that the U.S. and NATO are departing as well as India, which might want to counteract broader Pakistani influence. There are reasons to suspect that UN staff (some of) will remain in the country but guided by different circumstances, rules and eventually a new mandate. Albeit in paper, the new mandate is likely to read along the lines of the current document, e.g., ‘support for gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment’ (contradictorily, under Taliban-style Sharia law) and the ‘fight against corruption throughout the country’.
This endorsement would be for the benefit of the Taliban, as they want to present themselves anew to the world, and the political leaders of the U.S. and NATO countries to save face for their poorly planned departure from Afghanistan and the betrayal of the Afghan people. In practice, however, UN staff are likely to be heavily constrained and accompanied by the Taliban wherever they go to ensure a sanitised (and distorted view) of Afghanistan is presented to the world. Let us not forget here that the nation-building enterprise was discontinued when it was just starting and it is impossible to ensure that the Taliban in its new centre of gravity in Kabul will be able to control what happens in remote provinces like executions, rapes, and the forced marriage of children – Afghanistan is roughly the size of Texas but very mountainous, arid, and rural.
Commensurably, the security cover offered by contractors to UN agencies and their humanitarian partners will go through a swift period of transition after which it will have to be re-engineered to be adapted to the new reality on the ground – one cannot tell at this stage if this will require a higher or lower number of commercial contractors. In addition, there is always the risk of the country descending into civil war, which would change everything.
Other external factors – Afghanistan will become a richer mix of belligerent parties (former Taliban fighters returning from exile, jihadists, fundamentalist tourists, mercenaries, opium trade ambassadors, foreign destabilising agents, unlicensed security suppliers, etc.). Future security contractors deployed in the country will have to be more resilient as Afghanistan is likely to turn into a highly volatile country without the comforting presence of Western troops and with a myriad of borderline characters from several countries. It will not be the same operating in a country in which your counterparts in uniform are a few clicks away to operating in a bleak terrain in which you might find yourself on your own when things get ugly. Inevitably, the contracted security cover needs to be better planned and executed and the personnel better selected, ideally,
Considering the issues explored, for the time being please do not take to heart preliminary projections on the precise number of contractors and/or types in Afghanistan tomorrow, next week, or in a month’s time. This is an analysis not easy to be made as Afghanistan is, as we write, a very dangerous, volatile, and unpredictable place.