|Afghan Militiamen to Be Enticed to Lay Down Arms|
The Los Angeles Times
By Chris Kraul
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Cash and jobs will be held out to fighters who make up the country's destabilizing factions
KABUL, Afghanistan — Nasrullah, a militiaman for 12 of his 26 years, is ready for a career change. The jihad is over, the Taliban has been chased from power and his current assignment — guarding former King Mohammed Zaher Shah's house — is boring. Plus, he hasn't been paid in four months.
"I'll be patient awhile longer, then I'll just go find a better solution," said Nasrullah, who left his home in Badakshan province at age 14 to take up arms against the then-Communist Afghan government. "I'll take any job, even as a construction laborer. Why not? Helping rebuild the country would be a point of pride for me."
Next month, the Afghan government will launch a nationwide program to disarm 100,000 militiamen like Nasrullah, and it's counting on many of them to share his frame of mind. The program is seen as crucial to the nation's safety and survival, even as many people doubt that it can succeed in a country so steeped in war and the culture of the gun. Still, even skeptics agree it must be tried.
Called Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program, the $51-million United Nations-directed campaign aims to convert militiamen who have known little in life but violence into law-abiding and productive citizens. To give up their arms, militiamen will be offered up to $250 cash to tide them over until they start mainstream jobs that at this point are purely hypothetical.
The premise is that such large-scale reconstruction projects as building roads, irrigation systems and power plants will soon be underway, generating employment for the demobilized militia members. Officials say the program may be the best chance of ridding the country of the factional violence and common crime now jeopardizing the nation's recovery after 23 years of chaos and destruction.
"You can't have serious development in a country like Afghanistan without some measure of the rule of law," said Sultan Aziz, senior U.N. advisor to the program. "In the current environment, the establishment of the rule of law is extremely difficult."
A year and a half after the defeat of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a balkanized collection of armed camps ruled by warlords who thumb their noses at the central government of President Hamid Karzai. A 4,700-soldier international peacekeeping force patrols the capital, Kabul, but the rest of the country is in the hands of the warlords.
Many of the warlords hold commander titles bestowed by Karzai's defense ministry. Under them are 100,000 militiamen, most of whom belonged to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, like Nasrullah, were loosely incorporated into the Ministry of Defense after the end of hostilities.
While some militia units perform responsibly, protecting civilians and keeping order, others spread mayhem by attacking rival ethnic factions, extorting truck drivers and imposing the rule of the gun in local disputes. Warlords and their minions collect and keep tens of millions of dollars in customs duties that should go to the central government.
Just as the disarmament program is gearing up, the security situation in Afghanistan has taken a turn for the worse, making it all the more urgent. In late March, armed men killed a Red Cross worker near Kandahar, and in recent days, teams clearing landmines have come under attack. The violence has had a chilling effect on aid agencies, on whom the majority of Afghans depend for basic necessities.
The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the world body in a speech this week that factional violence fanned by militias and attacks by Taliban remnants and other anti-Karzai forces are "casting a long shadow over the peace process, and indeed, over the whole future of Afghanistan."
The New Beginnings program will demobilize militia members one at a time, interviewing them to assess job skills before they report weeks later to a local employment center. In the meantime, the disarmament staff will have tried to match the men with jobs near their homes.
The U.N. hopes to place workers in two new public works programs. It is also pressing aid agencies to make jobs available to former militiamen, but that idea has been coolly received because a large portion of the men are thought to be illiterate and unskilled.
The demobilization program will be implemented by teams of up to 50 workers, who will fan out over the country in convoys with six or seven truck-container loads of equipment. The teams will move from village to village, disarming militia garrisons in a 35-mile radius and moving on.
"It's designed to be like a circus show, just put up your tents and get started," Aziz said.
Plans for Army
If all goes as planned, the demobilization effort will clear the way for a new 70,000-strong Afghan National Army that is loyal to Karzai. This force is being trained and underwritten by the U.S. Army. So far, about 4,000 troops have been trained.
Plans call for the demobilization to be complete by June 2004, when national and provincial elections are scheduled. By that time, the so-called Central Corps of the new army, numbering 9,000 troops, should be deployable. U.S. military planners believe Karzai needs at least that many troops to impose his authority on warlords and various factions.
If the militias aren't neutered and the new army is not in a position of strength by then, some observers worry that Karzai's government will not be able to enforce the election results.
"There are a number of military elements scattered around the country that support certain leaders but who don't necessarily feel the same duty to the central government," said U.S. Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, who is coaxing commanders to participate. "That's not helpful to the progress of the country."
The demobilization program is modeled after successful U.N.-directed disarmament campaigns in Namibia, Guatemala and Cambodia, but rarely has the U.N. taken on a task this large and daunting.
Afghanistan has a strong warrior culture, bred by more than a century of internal fighting and fending off invaders, which isn't likely to vanish overnight. Militia leaders, many of whom feel they liberated the country from the Taliban, probably won't like being nudged aside. And even if there are enough jobs for the militiamen, not all are likely to be as eager as Nasrullah to change lifestyles.
"You can give everyone a bag of seeds, some money and lumber to build a house and tell him to go home. But there is no guarantee they won't come back and take up arms next week, especially if there is no economy or whatever job he gets isn't as much fun as being up in the hills, eating mutton and talking with his militia buddies," said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gen. Gul Haidar, who commands Ministry of Defense troops in four southern provinces of Afghanistan, said militiamen will be "humiliated" to work on construction projects.
Complicating things is that Afghanistan has no national identity system, which makes it hard to verify anyone's real name or residence. Coordinators will be hard-pressed to ensure that a demobilized militiaman doesn't simply change his name and reapply to get more money.
Haidar believes that a better solution is to create a National Guard-type force for the ex-militiamen, who would be available "in case the country needs them." But the U.N., the U.S. and Karzai's government don't like the idea of a large standing reserve force. Some observers say instead of focusing on individual fighters, the program should instead pressure commanders to give up artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Only 30 to 40 of the estimated 1,000 such pieces of heavy equipment in working order have been turned over to the new army.
Optimists say that the warlords will want to be seen as cooperative and will urge their soldiers to surrender their weapons, because many leaders plan to run for elective office in June 2004. If they resist disarmament, they could lose their Ministry of Defense titles, which would be a blot on their candidacies, or possibly even be disqualified from participating in the vote.
McNeill, the U.S. commander, expects many to play ball. And if they don't, Karzai will have his new army to enforce a disarmament edict, he said.
"When the Central Corps [of the army] is trained and fielded, it will be the force that all must reckon with," he said.