Afghan militias slowly disband

But warlords, weapons pose obstacle as nation turns from guns to ballots

October 06, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Quiet and wary, looking a little apprehensive, Abdul Fatah finally gave up the life of a hired gun yesterday.

The baby-faced, broad-shouldered 32-year-old from the plains of Logar province, south of Kabul, has spent his adulthood as a warrior in a private militia fighting against Soviet forces, the Taliban and his commander's rivals. Killing has been his profession, war a way of life.

All that ended officially after Fatah showed up at a United Nations compound here to receive a gold-colored medal, a certificate of thanks signed by President Hamid Karzai, and several hundred pounds of wheat, beans, salt and other staples.

"We have already given up our weapons," he said, waiting to be interviewed by U.N. workers who offered him training in everything from carpentry to beekeeping. "Now we have come here to be civilized."

Crucial moves

On Saturday, Afghans will for the first time vote in a democratic presidential election. The historic ballot is considered critical to healing the country's deep wounds after decades of war.

But experts say the effort to disband private militias is probably more important to Afghanistan's long-term chances for survival.

"The process is absolutely critical to the stability of the country," said Rick Grant, a spokesman for the U.N. office directing the program, called DDR for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. "And without stability, these elections mean nothing and this country is in mortal peril."

So far, the program has peacefully disarmed about 20,000 Afghan militia members, representing perhaps half of the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 fighters. U.N. teams have transferred to government control 60 percent of the thousands of tanks, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons in the arsenals of warlords.

But there are still enough heavily armed fighters to challenge Afghanistan's fledgling, 14,000-man national army. And there are more than sufficient numbers to intimidate voters and officials in the nation's 25,000 polling places, should the warlords choose to do so.

That is why the joint U.N.-Afghan board running the elections has decided to use village volunteers rather than militia fighters - who are paid by the central government and in theory part of the nation's security forces - to help the regular military provide election security.

"You will not see the Afghan militia forces guarding counting houses or voting centers," John McComber, head of security for the elections, told reporters at a Monday briefing. "We are not working with them."

The warlords' power

Paul Cruickshank, who helped lead the U.N. program to seize heavy weapons, said militia arsenals include everything from Soviet fighter planes to battle tanks. There are 105 tanks in militia hands in the provinces surrounding Kabul alone, and one militia commander, Minister of Defense Muhammed Qasim Fahim, controls 30 Scud missiles stored in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul.

So far, the warlords have mostly cooperated. That's because they face an implicit threat. Either they can cut deals and salvage some of their power and dignity or they can resist, be stripped of their men and weapons by U.S. and coalition forces, and wind up losing everything.

But the implicit threat of force has not eliminated the warlords' power to quietly frustrate reforms, such as the coming elections. In recognition of that threat, the government in Kabul accelerated its efforts to demobilize fighters and seize heavy weapons about a month ago.

First, Karzai issued a decree ordering the commanders of about 27,000 militiamen to disband or face a cutoff of salaries. About the same time, Karzai removed the strongman Ismail Khan from the governorship of Herat.

Khan, who ran the city as a personal fiefdom, had resisted complying with many important orders from Kabul, including those on demobilization. Once he was removed, U.N. officials and others say, the program of bringing heavy weapons under national army control began in earnest.

Slow progress

As the election nears, experts say Afghanistan's militias are shrinking and warlords are seeing their power ebb.

"In six months, the Afghan national army will have sufficient numbers and structural strength so that it will be able to deal with pockets of resistance," said Peter Babbington, a former British Royal Marine and director of the DDR program. "Slowly, slowly, progress is being made."

Still, Babbington says the process faces many hurdles and that success is not assured.

In Afghanistan, most militiamen would never dare quit their units. Instead, the government must persuade commanders to order them to do so.

"This is in many ways a medieval army armed with modern weapons," Babbington said.

But warlords who have ordered their fighters to disband can just as easily order them to report for duty again. This has occurred in northern Afghanistan, U.N. officials said.

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