The contemporary security environment is more crowded than it has been in centuries, particularly in Afghanistan where national and international security forces are joined by insurgent groups, warlord armies, bandits, and private security contractors (PSCs).

Yet, despite their growing use in Afghanistan, and the occasional news story detailing friendly fire incidents between PSC employees and Canadian Forces personnel, PSCs are still largely a mystery to most Canadian observers.

What roles do PSCs play in Afghanistan? As we ask more of PSCs, what are the challenges of their use? What solutions may exist for these challenges? Do these solutions present their own challenges? What are the dynamics of operating with PSCs in a contemporary conflict zone?

Private security contractors in Afghanistan are growing in both number and responsibilities. Indeed, by 2008, over 10,000 foreign security contractors and 20,000 local Afghan contractors were fulfilling a variety of essential security roles:

· providing static defence for Afghan government buildings and foreign embassies;
· providing static defence for private-, government-, and military-led development and reconstruction efforts, including guarding some of the CF’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams; and
· providing mobile defence of VIPs and convoys of goods and people throughout Afghanistan, but particularly in major cities, like Kabul and Kandahar, and on the roads that link them.

All of these are useful roles, not only because they help provide sufficient security for governance and private sector activities to take place in areas where they otherwise could not, but also because they free up CF and other NATO personnel to prosecute military operations against the Taliban.

As the CF’s Brigadier General Denis Thompson acknowledged, private security contractors have become vital to the success of the Afghan mission: “Without private security firms, it would be impossible to achieve what we’re achieving here. There are many aspects of the mission here in Afghanistan, many security aspects that are performed by private security firms that which, if they were turned over to the military, would make our task impossible. We just don’t have the numbers to do everything.”

Despite the growing sense of normalcy surrounding the presence of private security contractors, the use of these actors, especially those tasked with providing mobile defence of people and goods, poses several challenges to the CF and other NATO armed forces operating in Afghanistan.

To begin with, the sheer diversity of backgrounds, tactical skills and degrees of discipline possessed by private security contractors means that it is difficult for CF personnel to maintain consistent expectations about the behaviour of the private soldiers they encounter. PSC employees can range from veterans of the Western world’s best-trained and disciplined military units, including the U.S. Army Special Forces, the British SAS, and the CF’s Joint Task Force 2, to local Afghans with virtually no military training.

The latter often lack the capacity and the confidence to fire their weapons accurately, which motivates some PSC teams to rely on simplistic and highly dangerous hurricane barrages to address real or perceived security threats. These involve firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition in all directions in a wild attempt to disable or at least temporarily suppress a potential threat. The shooting death of Master Cpl. Joshua Roberts during an accidental firefight between PSC, CF, and Taliban personnel in August 2008 has been attributed to the use of this tactic by two PSC teams staffed by poorly trained Afghan personnel.

In addition, the current, uncontrolled use of mobile private security contractors creates a dangerous degree of confusion among many other groups of actors. For instance, due in large part to the decision made by some PSCs to wear the uniforms of Afghan police and army personnel, neither Afghan civilians nor NATO troops can easily differentiate between PSC personnel and government security forces. This is problematic because the actions of PSC personnel, whether positive or negative, may be attributed to other security forces.

Similarly, due to the very presence of PSCs on the streets of Afghanistan, which act in support of the Afghan government as well as international governments and firms, any poor behaviour by these actors may be construed as reflecting the intentions of their clients. This, in turn, may undermine the CF’s efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the local populace.

Likewise, the current inability to coordinate the movements and activities of mobile PSC teams with those of the CF has contributed to disastrous incidents where PSC and CF personnel have engaged each other in combat. For example, the above-mentioned firefight between PSC and CF personnel in August 2008, which occurred when PSC teams stumbled upon a pre-existing firefight between CF and Taliban personnel and mistakenly fired upon the CF soldiers, could have been prevented had the PSC personnel known the location of CF patrols in advance and avoided the CF-Taliban firefight entirely.

Possible solutions; further challenges
These challenges are not insurmountable; however, simple solutions may not exist.

First of all, although undertaking joint training exercises between CF and PSC personnel could help address some of the gross training deficiencies present in some PSC personnel and build trust and coordination between these two groups of actors, there is also reason to believe this may not be effective. Indeed, as in Iraq, many of the PSCs currently operating in Afghanistan are wholly owned and staffed by local Afghans and virtually all utilize at least some local Afghans to bolster their ranks. The security personnel in these organizations can change over rapidly.

As a result, the CF is not likely to see lasting effects from joint training exercises with PSCs because many of the private soldiers involved will change firms or leave the security industry in relatively short order. In addition, it may not be possible to incorporate PSCs staffed primarily by local Afghans into the months of predeployment training that CF personnel undertake inside Canada in advance of their rotations to Afghanistan.

Moreover, given the inability of the CF to guarantee the loyalty of local Afghan PSCs and their employees, joint CF/PSC training could result in the transfer of “trade secrets,” such as operational protocols, from the CF to its opponents, including the Taliban, warlord armies and local bandits. Joint training with PSCs might, consequently, create more problems for the CF than it would resolve. Indeed, the Taliban’s demonstrable willingness and capacity to adapt its technology and tactics to those of the CF suggests that revealing any vital CF tradecraft to local private entities would likely increase the overall risk of CF casualties, rather than decrease it.

Beyond this, a joint command structure could greatly increase coordination between CF and PSC personnel, and thus reduce the probability of friendly fire incidents. However, due once again to the possibility that local Afghan PSC personnel could pass information on to the CF’s enemies, such a structure could also expose CF personnel to greater overall risk than they currently face. For example, depending on the actions of the PSCs involved, such a structure could allow the Taliban to gain up-to-the-second information regarding the whereabouts of CF personnel, which would enhance the insurgents’ ability to launch effective ambushes and plant IEDs in optimal locations. Therefore, as with joint training, establishing a joint command structure could create more problems for the CF than it would resolve.

To be sure, the growing use of private security contractors in Afghanistan presents a myriad of challenges for both the Canadian Forces and their NATO allies. As this article has sought to illustrate, these challenges are pressing and no perfect solutions for them yet exist.

Nevertheless, if the CF can reach out to PSCs and establish sufficient confidence regarding the trustworthiness and loyalty of these potential partners, then it may be possible to undertake joint training and establish a joint command structure to better coordinate their activities. If this is not possible, however, PSCs will likely remain yet another dangerous, though highly useful element of the chaotic stew that is the current Afghan security environment.

Scott Fitzsimmons is a graduate of the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University where he conducted research on private military companies. He is currently a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Calgary (