Concerned a ban on security contractors in Afghanistan will curtail the efforts of development workers, the State Department is feverishly negotiating with the Afghan government about a set of conditions that will allow private security details to operate in the country, senior U.S. officials told CNN.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said the United States is concerned about a four-month deadline Afghanistan's president imposed last month to phase out the country's 52 private security companies by year's end. If implemented, the move would leave critical aid personnel unprotected and unable to continue their work, a key pillar of the U.S. strategy as it seeks to stabilize Afghanistan.
The U.S. is in intense negotiations with the Afghan interior ministry for a "clarification letter" that would spell out a consistent and uniform set of guidelines by which contractors would be allowed to remain in the country and under what conditions they can operate. The guidelines should be finished within the next week, they said.
Diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, rely on private forces to protect their compounds, and NATO uses private forces to guard convoys along their supply routes.
Recent events, including the kidnapping and slaying of a British aid worker, have underscored the need for security to accompany aid workers.
"The four-month deadline is going to be extremely difficult to meet," one senior official said. "We have to be more realistic."
Officials said discussions over the past several weeks with the Afghan government about the phasing out of contractors have given the United States "very unclear" information about the fate of the contractors protecting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on U.S.-funded projects.
For years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized the private security industry operating in his country - a mix of legally registered international companies and unregulated Afghan paramilitaries. Officials say they are sympathetic to his desire to phase out the illegal companies, but are concerned about the way Karzai has tried to address the issue by decree without any clarification.
In the meantime, USAID officials from several NGOs say discussions have been under way about the need for contingency plans for their staffs in the event of the worst-case scenario, under which all contractors would have to leave the country.
"We are trying to make sure that doesn't happen," the senior official said. "We hope it will be resolved shortly."