Afghanistan Aims to Disarm Private Militias


By Victoria Burnett

Boston Globe
July 2, 2003

It was just another weekend in Samangan province in northern Afghanistan: Two forces loyal to two warlords -- both loyal to the central government -- clashed overnight Friday, pulled back their militias Saturday, and then blamed each other for starting the fight. Skirmishes between small, armed factions allied to Ustad Atta Mohammad, a powerful ethnic Tajik commander, and his longtime rival, Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rashid Dostum, are part of Afghanistan's violent landscape. But the country's fledgling government and its United Nations advisers hope to make these clashes a thing of the past with a national disarmament program.

The Afghan New Beginnings Program, a three-year project, aims to collect weapons from an estimated 100,000 fighters and smooth their path to civilian life, leaving the defense of the country in the hands of a new, centralized, ethnically balanced national army. ''People have to come to an understanding that the Afghan National Army is the only future establishment within the armed forces,'' said General Atiqullah Baryalai, one of four Afghan deputy defense ministers and head of the disarmament commission.

After 23 years of fighting, first against the Soviets, then among one another, the people of Afghanistan have become a nation of warriors, many unruly, untrained, and indifferent to the rights of civilians. The country is ruled by private militias, most -- at least nominally -- allied to President Hamid Karzai, but soldiers' loyalties often lie more closely with their commanders and their ethnic group than with the government. Some militias are commanded by bitter rivals, like Atta and Dostum, who indulge in factional skirmishes.

Under the disarmament program, verification teams in three pilot locations -- the northern province of Konduz, the central province of Bamyan, and the southern province of Gardez -- will screen those who say they are combatants. The program is aimed at soldiers of regional commanders who fall under the umbrella of the Afghan defense ministry. ''Most people have arms and guns at home to protect themselves; that is not really our concern,'' said Sultan Aziz, senior adviser to Lakhdar Brahimi, the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan who is directing the disarmament program. ''Our concern is people who use arms to extract a living.'' After the verification process, mobile teams will collect weapons, offer compensation of as much as two months' minimum wage, and try to find civilian jobs for the fighters. Former combatants also will be thumbprinted and will sign a code of conduct.

As the government sets about disarming Afghanistan's private militias, it continues the grinding process of building a centralized army. More than a year after US, French, and British troops began training new recruits, the army boasts only about 4,000 soldiers of a planned 70,000-strong force. Afghan and US officials involved in the process say the pace is gathering. The dropout rate has fallen to about 15 percent, from about 40 percent in the early days, when recruits found the rigid regime, unheated barracks, and poor food hard to tolerate. Some national army units have done successful tours in the provinces alongside troops from the US-led coalition.

But the disarmament program, which was supposed to begin yesterday, has been delayed by the Afghan government's inability to reform the defense ministry, a UN spokesman said. The ministry, led by Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim, is dominated by mostly Tajik commanders from the Northern Alliance resistance movement from the Panjshir Valley and is distrusted by other ethnic groups. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, has been criticized by people in this government and foreign officials for not daring to take on Fahim. Fahim has resisted calls to move his 4,000 soldiers out of Kabul, even though removal of all but international troops from the capital was a key provision of the Bonn peace agreement that many Afghan warlords signed in 2001.

In a recent interview, Baryalai said it would be a ''misperception'' to describe his Cabinet as Panjshiri-dominated but that there needed to be ''adjustments, including at the ministry of defense,'' for disarmament to work. Officials close to the government said on Monday that negotiations were taking place on the issue. For non-Tajiks, disarming under the current ministry of defense is tantamount to giving the country over to the Northern Alliance. Although UN officials have not made specific demands public, they have made it clear any reform would have to spread power more evenly across ethnic lines.

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