By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Private security contractors in Afghanistan add to the sense of insecurity, are often confused with foreign troops, employ former militiamen and may have links to crime, said an independent Swiss study published on Monday.
The number of private security companies has risen steadily since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, with armed men guarding homes and offices in cities and supply convoys and construction projects in the countryside.
The Afghan government has failed to introduce proper legislation or regulations to govern the private security companies, but the police have nevertheless begun a crackdown on those operating without a temporary licence.
Some of the companies are Afghan-owned, while among the foreign-owned companies the main country of origin is the United States followed by Britian.
The main problem, said Susanne Schmeidl, the author of the Swiss study, is that "nobody guards the guardians".
Private security companies represent a new form of mercenary activity, a United Nations report said last week. The firms have come under increased scrutiny since a shooting in September in which guards working for the company Blackwater were accused of killing 17 Iraqis in Baghdad.
While there have been no such incidents in Afghanistan, some ordinary Afghans interviewed for the study by the Swisspeace think-tank complained some security contractors behaved in a "cowboy-like" way and did not treat Afghans with respect.
The presence of so many armed men, often from different groups operating in close vicinity to one another, added to residents' sense of insecurity, the study found.
"Many Afghans are not quite able to distinguish the private security sector from the international armed forces, from their own Afghan National Police and Afghan army and general confusion prevails," Schmeidl told a news conference in Kabul.
Security companies often hire former Afghan militiamen either as individuals or, in some cases, en masse along with their local warlord commander, the study said.
"While there is a positive argument to be made that private security company employment keeps former strongmen and their militia off the streets ... the dilemma as to what will happen to these militia when the contract ends needs to be addressed."
Afghans perceived private security companies to be involved in crime and the robbing of several Kabul banks -- thought to be 'inside jobs' -- prompted President Hamid Karzai to try to speed up legislation for the sector which has long languished in parliament.
Police have raided the offices of up to 10, mostly Afghan, security companies in the last month and have vowed to crack down on all those without temporary licences.
"Companies operating against the law are a threat and are creating a challenge for security forces in the country so they must be eliminated," Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.
The Swisspeace report is published online here
(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by John Chalmers)