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Afghanistan: Herat Fighting Highlights Need to Disarm Militias, Strengthen National Army

  • Ron Synovitz --> This week's fighting in the western Afghan city of Herat has increased pressure for speedier reforms on at least two security fronts -- the disarming of the country's rival militia factions and the strengthening of the Afghan National Army. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports.

Kabul, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan and U.S. officials say clear lessons are emerging as they examine events behind 21 March fighting in Herat between Governor Ismail Khan's private army and the Defense Ministry's 4th Corps militia.

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the fighting shows that programs aimed at strengthening the central government's authority outside of Kabul need to be implemented more quickly.

"I don't think [the crisis in Herat] affects the strategic direction of this country," he said. "I think what it highlights is that we need to accelerate some things that need to be done here. Disarming and reintegrating militias is, in my view, the lesson that I take away from this as to what needs to be accelerated. And [the building of] national institutions, such as the Afghan National Army that you see responding to the situation [in Herat], needs to be speeded up."

"I think the ANA's presence there will have a difference both militarily and politically in the relations between the center and Herat."
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Javed Ludin, says the crisis shows that security in the Afghan provinces could deteriorate further unless disarmament is expedited and starts to produce results. The issue is especially critical as the country gears up for presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for later this year.

But Ludin only hinted to journalists about plans to establish permanent bases for the Afghan National Army in areas that are under the control of powerful regional warlords.

"What [the Herat crisis] will mean in terms of the future [is that the central government's priority] will be to make sure that the security and safety of the people of Herat is not threatened and to do everything to get this objective done," Ludin said. "We will think about the long-term implications of this particular event. This will certainly have implications for a number of programs that the government is trying to implement, and the disarmament process is, of course, the most important one. In order to ensure that people -- not only in Herat but also in the rest of the country -- do not face a similar risk in the future, we will do everything that is necessary."

RFE/RL has learned that one project considered necessary by both the Afghan central government and U.S. military officials is the setting up of permanent garrisons for the Afghan National Army in or near the cities of Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Gardez. Even before the 21 March violence, teams from the U.S. Army and the Afghan Defense Ministry were visiting potential sites for the new bases.

The deployment of at least 1,500 National Army troops to Herat in response to the fighting marks the beginning of what analysts say could become a permanent presence in the city by those forces.

Indeed, some of the National Army soldiers have been sent to the garrison of the 17th Herat Division of the Defense Ministry's 4th Corps. That was the headquarters of General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah's troops before his garrison and residence were overrun by Ismail Khan's militia on 21 March. The Defense Ministry has final approval on whether the location will now become a permanent garrison for the National Army.

Meanwhile, both the United States and the Afghan government have sought to downplay the significance of the fact that the leaders of the forces involved in the battle were one of Afghanistan's most powerful regional warlords and a general who was appointed to his Defense Ministry command by Karzai.

Nayebzadah's troops in the 4th Corps -- like many of the factional militias that operate under the auspices of the Defense Ministry -- are nominally part of the central government's security forces. General Nayebzadah receives orders from Karzai through the Defense Ministry.

Vikram Parekh is a Kabul-based expert on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. He said the 21 March violence appears to be the extension of a power struggle that has been going on in Herat since last year between Ismail Khan and the Afghan central government.

"The 4th Corps has been a contentious issue for several months between Ismail Khan and the central government," he said. "Last fall, Karzai had appointed a new head of the 4th Corps who had, initially, not even been really able to take his post in Herat because it came at the expense of Ismail Khan, [who at that time had] both political authority as governor and military authority as head of the 4th Corps. The Afghan National Army's deployment is the thing that could make this actually stick. So this [deployment] would be a first real attempt by the central government to put some bite into its appointments."

But the 4th Corps also is an entirely different entity than the Afghan National Army. The National Army is now working closely with U.S. forces against former Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants as part of Operation Mountain Storm. The National Army troops are trained by the U.S.-led coalition and hail from various ethnic groups so that its battalions are representative of the country's demographic diversity.

Parekh concludes that a decision by the Defense Ministry to keep Afghan National Army (ANA) troops in Herat permanently will dramatically alter the situation in the province.

"I think the ANA's presence there will have a difference both militarily and politically in the relations between the center and [Governor Ismail Khan's faction] in Herat if [the ANA troops] are kept in Herat for a long enough time."

Ismail Khan's spokesman, General Gholam Mohammad Mas'un, has made it clear that the Herat governor does not want the National Army to stay in the province permanently. Mas'un told RFE/RL this week that the deployments are unnecessary and are "not fair."

Khalilzad says Ismail Khan has officially welcomed the deployments. But the U.S. ambassador says he is not ready to predict that violence in Herat is over once and for all. He was asked whether he thinks there will be fighting in the future between Ismail Khan's militia and the ANA.

"I hope not. I think the presence of the forces of the Afghan National Army should have a positive stabilizing effect," he said. "That's our expectation. That's our hope. That's what the central government is trying to do. And also, that's what Governor Ismail Khan has said. That's his expectation, as well. So, well, we will have to see."

Meanwhile, some details are emerging about the events that sparked the fighting in Herat and the killing there on 21 March of Ismail Khan's son, Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadeq.

A preliminary report on the investigation by Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali and Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim says that Sadeq's death was the result of a "tragic event sparked by a small accident." The report did not elaborate on the accident. But it did lower the estimated death toll to 16 people.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad had said earlier that Sadeq's death was a "result of the fighting" rather than a cause of the fighting.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah says the ministerial delegation's findings suggest the death of Sadeq was not a premeditated assassination, as initially reported.