Afghanistan's president is setting a four-month deadline for private security companies to cease operations in the country, a spokesman said Monday.
A presidential decree expected to be issued later Monday will detail the process through which the companies should cease operations, spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul.
President Hamid Karzai has said repeatedly in recent months that these companies undermine government security forces, creating a parallel security structure. Contractors perform duties ranging from guarding supply convoys to personal security details for diplomats and businessmen.
The imminent decree expedites action that Karzai had promised in his inauguration speech in November, when he said he wanted to close down both foreign and domestic security contractors within two years.
"Within four months, all private security companies will be disbanded," Omar said, but declined to go into detail before the decree is released.
The Interior Ministry has 52 security firms licensed, but some older contracts are still being completed by unlicensed firms, according to the U.S. military. There are about 26,000 private security contractors working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, 19,000 of them with the military, officials said.
As in Iraq, the conduct of security contractors in Afghanistan -- particularly those working with U.S. forces -- has been a source of tension, with complaints that they are poorly regulated and effectively operate outside local law.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said the United States supports Karzai's goal of eliminating private security firms but would not comment on whether it would be possible to meet the deadline.
"We are in total support of the president of Afghanistan's intent to do away with private security companies and to do away with the need for private security companies," Maj. Joel Harper said. "This should be done in a logical and sequential manner, and as conditions permit."
The U.S. military set up a task force in June to tighten regulation and oversight of its security contractors, but its top official has stayed away from talk of deadlines.
"Since the Afghan army and the Afghan police are not quite at the stages of capability and capacity to provide all the security that is needed, private security companies are filling a gap," Brig. Gen. Margaret Boor said Monday before the announcement.
Boor said private security contractors can only be phased out as the security situation improves -- a hard target given worsening security in recent months in areas of northern and central Afghanistan that had previously been relatively safe.
The majority of U.S. military contractors provide base security, though some also protect convoys, Harper said. He had previously said that the majority were involved in convoy protection.
Karzai has said such responsibilities should fall to either soldiers or police.
Though the U.S. task force is new, Boor said it is already taking steps to improve oversight of security firms, including registering all contractors and ensuring they have the necessary qualifications and receive training on appropriate use of force.
NATO troops operate under firm rules spelling out conditions under which they can use deadly force.