KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai is planning to sign a decree this week ordering the disbanding of all private security forces by the end of the year, his spokesman said Monday.
But it is not clear how the move, which would constitute an extraordinary change in the security makeup of the country, could be carried out. There are at least 24,000 private armed guards in the country, some foreign but most Afghan, and there is no immediately available alternative for the array of crucial tasks they perform.
They escort convoys of supply trucks across dangerous roads to NATO military bases, protect government and military buildings, and provide protection for political leaders and others.
President Karzai had been under pressure to bring private security companies under control, since a United States Congressional investigation and news reports have asserted that the private guards often behave recklessly and, in some cases, even bribe Taliban insurgents to allow supply convoys to pass unmolested. Some security companies are so large that they constitute private armies of thousands of armed men, who can challenge or ignore local governments.
“They are parallel structure to the government,” said Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai. “They will soon be dissolved.”
Mr. Omar did not explain how that would be carried out, or how the companies would be replaced. In the past, the government of Mr. Karzai has sometimes promised things that it has shown itself to be unable to deliver. The president has pledged repeatedly to root out corruption in his government, but his efforts in that regard have fallen far short of the demands of his foreign backers.
Spokesmen for the American-led NATO force in Kabul and officials in Washington expressed cautious approval of Mr. Karzai’s goal, but said such a move would depend on the ability of the Afghan Army and the police to replace private guards.
“We have a shared goal with Afghanistan of transitioning from our current situation to security led by the Afghan government,” said Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman. But he added, “At this moment, we believe that there is still a need for private security.”
Mr. Crowley said American Embassy officials in Kabul had the proposed decree and were studying it. But he said there was uncertainty about which contractors would be covered.
“We have contractors who are currently guarding our embassy. We honestly don’t know whether what President Karzai has in mind, you know, covers that,” he said.
Records show there are 52 private security companies registered with the government, with 24,000 armed men, most of them Afghans. But many, if not most, of the security companies are not registered with the government, do not advertise themselves and do not necessarily restrain their employees with training or rules of engagement. Some appear to be little more than gangs.
In the city of Kandahar alone, at least 23 armed groups — ostensibly security companies not registered with the government — are operating under virtually no government control, Western and Afghan officials say. On Kandahar’s streets, armed men can often be seen roaming about without uniforms or identification.
Matiullah Khan, who runs one such force in Oruzgan Province, fields an army of about 1,500 fighters, who are paid by trucking companies supplying NATO bases to protect a 100-mile stretch of road. He is, by many accounts, the most powerful man in Oruzgan.
Afghan and NATO officials have discussed ways of either controlling the private forces or replacing them. Replacing them with the Afghan Army or the police — or NATO troops — would be problematic, as those troops are stretched thin. The Afghan security forces currently number about 225,000, and NATO forces about 150,000.
The United States government employs 26,000 armed security contractors, about 19,000 of whom work for the American military, according to NATO officials. As in Iraq, foreign contractors’ presence and activities in Afghanistan have often stirred resentment, but American officials say they cannot operate without them.
In July, a crowd of Afghans in Kabul chanted “Death to America” after an S.U.V. driven by American contractors from DynCorp International was involved in a collision that left four Afghans dead.
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Karzai had previously declared an intention to shut down security contractors, and it remained to be seen what action might follow this time. “He plays the nationalist card all the time, and foreign military contractors are unpopular,” Mr. Biddle said.
The Afghan president, he said, could harness resentment of foreign contractors to marshal support even if his real goal is to dismantle large Afghan security companies that have become rivals of the government.
“The clever way to go about it would be to cloak it in the universal dislike of foreign contractors,” Mr. Biddle said. But he noted that the details of the decree were not public, “and this is a subject where the details matter a great deal.”