Tens of thousands of privately contracted armed guards - ranging from ragtag militias run by warlords to highly trained, former special-forces operatives - will be forced out of business if President Hamid Karzai makes good on a threat to close down private security firms before the end of the year.
"Within four months, all private security companies will be disbanded," Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said.
The Afghan President has often railed against private security companies, accusing them of incompetence, killings and widespread corruption - charges often levelled against his government's own security apparatus.
Making good on that threat could create chaos across the war-ravaged country. While Western diplomats say they endorse Mr. Karzai's long-term goal of making the Afghan police and military responsible for security, many doubt that the four-month timetable is feasible.
"As we stand here, it's hard to envision where the Afghan government can assume all of the ... security responsibility in Afghanistan four months from now," said Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department. "We understand and agree with his long-term goal."
Hired guns are the biggest and perhaps most profitable business in Afghanistan, after opium growing and drug smuggling. Prominent families close to the ruling regime in Kabul are linked to both.
Gun-toting private guards ride shotgun on vital convoys hauling food, water, munitions and fuel to the more than 100,000 foreign troops - including 2,500 Canadians in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar. They also guard heavily fortified embassies in Kabul - including Canada's - and even provide perimeter security at some of the bases of some NATO allies where watchtowers and gates are operated by hired security contractors.
Nearly 30,000 armed men are currently employed by more than 50 registered firms. Some are apparently little more than locally engaged mercenaries running shakedowns at checkpoints. Others provide sophisticated protection crucial to diplomatic and international aid agencies. There are also scores of unregistered firms, especially in Kandahar and the rest of the war-torn south. Mr. Karzai vowed in his inauguration speech last November to rid the country of all private militias and security firms within two years. Whether the hurry-up deadline can be met remains uncertain.
"When we get the decree, we'll consider it," a Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesman said.
Ottawa won't divulge details of its current security contract in Kabul, but the most recently confirmed pact was with Saladin Security, a British-based firm with a long and sometimes murky lineage dating back decades that includes covert operations for the CIA and others in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Saladin provides Canada's embassy guards and a heavily armed rapid-reaction force in Kabul, although Canadian officials say close personal protection for diplomats and visiting politicians is provided by Canadian special-forces soldiers.
Mr. Karzai's latest threat to shutter the multibillion-dollar labyrinth of private security firms follows anti-American demonstrations last week in Kabul after a private security contractor's convoy of heavily armoured vehicles killed a pedestrian.
"The people who are working in private security companies are against Afghan national interests, and their salaries are illegal money," Mr. Karzai said in an angry speech to ill-paid Afghan government workers on the weekend. "They are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night," published reports quoted the President as saying.
"If they want to serve Afghanistan they have to join the Afghan police," he added, although that would require the privately contracted gunmen taking a massive pay cut.
Some of the largest Afghan private security firms have been linked to the President's family and others to his close political allies.
A recent U.S. congressional investigation suggested that a $2-billion Pentagon contract to provide protection for convoys bringing tens of thousands of tonnes of munitions and material from Pakistan into Afghanistan to sustain NATO's counterinsurgency warfare against the Taliban was little more than protection payments to keep warlords from attacking the heavily laden trucks.
Mr. Karzai has previously been known to make impetuous and sweeping statements, only to ignore or retract them later. Earlier this year, he threatened that "if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban," a comment that drew international condemnation.