A powerful militia commander in northern Afghanistan has given a rare press conference in which he defends the refusal of some of his militia fighters to disarm. The former Afghan deputy defense minister, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, also has proposed that he head an antiterrorism force of some 20,000 commandos that would fall under the authority of the president rather than the Defense Ministry.
Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the powerful northern Afghan militia commander and security adviser to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, says most of his private militia is ready to disarm under a United Nations-sponsored program.
Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek commander who heads the Junbish-e Milli-ye Islami political group. His private militia was part of the former Northern Alliance that helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban regime in late 2001.
But since then, some of Dostum's fighters have clashed repeatedly in the north with troops of a rival faction of the former Northern Alliance -- a mostly ethnic Tajik group called Jamiat-e Islami that includes Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
The clashes have raised concerns that field commanders under Dostum and Fahim may refuse to observe a major disarmament initiative aimed at easing the country in its transition to peacetime rule after decades of war.
Speaking at a press conference yesterday in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, Dostum stressed that much of his private militia is participating in a UN disarmament program that is aimed at bolstering the authority of the central government by helping to build a multiethnic Afghan National Army.
"I have never rejected disarmament and have, to the best of my ability, cooperated in this regard," he said. "We have surrendered more arms. The 19th and 70th regiments were both part of Junbish-e Milli-ye Islami, and I can tell you that we have surrendered about 150 pieces of heavy weaponry -- such as tanks and mortars -- to the National Army. We will continue to do so."
However, officials at a British-run Provincial Reconstruction Team near Mazar-e Sharif noted recently that the 50th Regiment of Dostum's militia continues to refuse to surrender its heavy artillery.
When asked about the British PRT's report on the 50th regiment, Dostum insisted that some of his militia forces have the right to retain their heavy weapons until rival militia disarm.
"We have made an agreement and told the Afghan government and the international community, as well as the [British-run] PRT, that there are other military troops in Afghanistan, in places such as Konduz, Kapisa, Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. When they surrender all their arms, we too will hand over every weapon in our possession to the National Army."
Altogether, some 100,000 militiamen across Afghanistan are supposed to surrender their weapons under the UN program. Some Western military observers in Afghanistan have expressed skepticism about disarmament, saying that militia commanders will not willingly surrender their modern arsenals.
But there has been progress during the past two months. Last week, in a program that is backed by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF), Afghan militia commanders in Kabul turned in more than 100 armored vehicles and heavy artillery pieces to the central government. That handover was seen as an important initial step toward demilitarizing the Afghan capital.
Much of that equipment belonged to the military wing of Defense Minister Fahim's Jamiat-e Islami faction. It included a convoy of armored troops carriers, ground-to-ground missile launchers, antitank guided missiles, and multiple rocket launchers that can destroy an entire city block with a single salvo.
The weapons were given to the Afghan Transitional Administration and moved to a military camp about 10 miles outside of Kabul. ISAF's deputy commander, Major General Andrew Leslie, said disarmament in Kabul has been a tremendous success. He said it shows that rival commanders are beginning to trust each other on disarmament. More importantly, Leslie said the program shows that commanders who don't trust each other are at least ready to trust ISAF.
Militia commanders in Kabul are expected to hand over another 300 heavy weapons during the next month. If successful, the program would remove all of Jamiat-e Islami's heavy artillery from the Afghan capital.
Yesterday's press conference by Dostum also highlighted suggestions he has made to Karzai for balancing the military powers of his faction against rival militia forces under Fahim.
Dostum said he is qualified to either replace Fahim as defense minister or to serve as the chief of staff for Afghanistan's National Army. He also suggested other possibilities, such as creating an armed antiterrorist force that would be independent from the Afghan Defense Ministry.
"I have the ability, God willing, to perform if a military position -- such as defense minister or head of the National Army -- is offered to me. I have even submitted to Hamid Karzai a six-month plan to repress remnants of Al-Qaeda in the south as I did in northern Afghanistan. I even suggested a special commando force of 20,000 troops to be trained to tackle terrorism. My conditions were that they would act under the president's direct authority as commander-in-chief -- a force separate from the National Army."
Dostum also told journalists that he would personally intervene in cases where some members of his militia have been accused of hindering the return of refugees in northern Afghanistan by robbing them or confiscating their property.
(Translations by RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin.)