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Afghanistan: Disarming Militias Seen As Critical To Success Of Peace Process

Demobilized? The United Nations says security-sector reform in Afghanistan is critical to the success of the Bonn peace process. But a vital project aimed at disarming and demobilizing factional militias has so far fallen short of expectations. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the so-called DDR program.

Kabul, 29 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his most recent report on Afghanistan, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested that the continued existence of private Afghan militia forces is impeding progress toward "successfully writing the final chapter of the Bonn Agreement."

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the UN's chief spokesman in Kabul, says Annan has been stressing the need for accelerated security reforms ahead of this week's Afghan donors conference in Berlin. He says the UN has concluded that a program known as "DDR" -- the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration into civil society of Afghan militia fighters -- is essential to achieving the objectives of the UN-backed peace process.

"The secretary-general says that elections, reconstruction, human rights and the building of state institutions depend on the success of initiatives aiming at strengthening security, such as the expansion of [the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF], the deployment of additional [U.S. and NATO] Provincial Reconstruction Teams and accelerated efforts toward the strengthening of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. [The secretary-general's report stressed, in particular, that] more progress is required to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former combatants."

Indeed, both UN and U.S. officials say fighting a week ago in Herat between the private army of provincial Governor Ismail Khan and a militia force of the Afghan Defense Ministry has underscored the dangers posed by the existence of multiple militia forces and commanders.

Annan's report, which was distributed to the members of the UN Security Council, says militia groups using the names of army units, police, or intelligence agencies often act as "instruments of extortion, undue influence and factional rivalry."

The report says the current DDR plan offers militia commanders an opportunity to reintegrate themselves and their troops into civilian life. But Annan concludes that voluntary disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of factional militia groups has fallen short of expectations.

Since the pilot program was started in October in the cities of Konduz, Gardez, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kabul, just under 6,000 soldiers or militia officers have been demobilized -- far short of the goal of 40,000 troops by the end of June.

In many cases, only old weapons have been turned in by militia fighters.

Annan also has described as "worrying" a pattern of widespread extortion of demobilized soldiers. Until earlier this month, a reintegration program called Afghan New Beginnings was making severance payments to help demobilized fighters reintegrate into civilian life. But the UN discovered that local commanders, aware of the payments, were forcing demobilized soldiers to give them the money. As a result, the reintegration funds inadvertently became a method of strengthening the finances of private militias. The Afghan New Beginnings program stopped making severance payments to individual soldiers this month.

Vikram Parekh, an expert on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, has written several reports on the DDR program that have been privately praised by UN officials involved in the process. He notes that militia commanders sometimes demobilize fighters who are only part-time soldiers -- the Afghan equivalent of a "reservist" -- while full-time members of the forces remain fully armed.

Parekh told RFE/RL that DDR needs to be reconceived so that the end result is the disbanding of entire militia groups rather than a reduction in the number of militia fighters claimed by each commander.

"The biggest problem with DDR in Afghanistan is the way that it has been negotiated without the benefit of a neutral force -- Afghan or international -- that is empowered to collect weapons and effectively shut down military divisions. As a result, it has been in many ways held hostage to the willingness of the Minister of Defense [Mohammad Qasim Fahim] -- who is himself the leader of the biggest militia in Afghanistan -- to decide which troops from each division are going to be demobilized," Parekh said.

Parekh also said the lack of detailed information about local command structures is compromising the effectiveness of the current DDR plan.

"There has been a dearth of information about militia structures in Afghanistan. You really need to look not so much at the formal structures but at the informal ones. This is particularly important if you want to identify which commanders -- right down to the village level -- are the instruments of mobilization. It's these informal networks of command that you really need to map out and take out through the DDR process," Parekh said.

Annan's report specifies that the commander of a mostly ethnic Uzbek militia in the north, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has taken a "go-slow" approach on disarmament that demonstrates what he calls a "lack of political will on the part of factional leaders."

Some observers say the failure of Defense Minister Fahim to disarm much of his own militia force has caused his rivals to hesitate. A high-profile ceremony on 27 March aimed to allay those fears by sending off 13 Soviet-era tanks, an armored personnel carrier, seven antiaircraft guns, and 29 other artillery pieces to a cantonment center outside of Kabul. The ceremony was billed as the "final phase" of demobilization in Kabul, which is dominated by Fahim's militia forces.

Lieutenant General Wolfgang Korte, the deputy commander of ISAF, said the operation "sends a strong example to commanders in other parts of the country."

Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said the collection of unauthorized heavy weapons in other provinces will start within days and be completed in June. Wardak says the Afghan government also plans to end its affiliation with scores of militia forces -- including 16 divisions, 13 brigades, 17 contingents, and 12 battalions -- to help meet the goal of demobilizing 40,000 officers and soldiers by the end of June.

But the program remains voluntary -- meaning that achieving the goal still depends on the willingness of regional militia commanders to dismantle their private armies. Annan concludes that the DDR projects implemented so far show the need for "political engagement at high levels of government" in order to pave the way for more significant disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.