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Afghanistan: Disarming The Militias -- Which Militias And Which Arms?

With the Afghan parliamentary elections set for this fall, many observers are focusing on the successes and shortcomings of the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. Few would dispute that in the absence of a comprehensive disbanding of Afghan militia forces the elections are likely to be disrupted by voter intimidation and even violence.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Development Program are supporting Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program (ANBP), which is aimed at coordinating DDR efforts in the country.

After initial setbacks, the DDR program began its pilot project in the northern Konduz Province in October 2003. By mid-April, nearly 48,000 members of the Afghan Military Forces (AMF) -- the catch-all label for various Afghan militia units -- had been disarmed, according to the ANBP. More than 43,000 have been demobilized, and more than 42,000 have reportedly been reintegrated into society. Most of the former militiamen have been absorbed into the agricultural and small-business sectors, are undergoing vocational training, or are awaiting job placements.

The ANBP officially recognized some 45,000-50,000 AMF members -- that is, individuals earmarked for the DDR process, suggesting that the program should be nearing completion. The ANBP also reports that nearly 9,000 heavy weapons have been collected.

This is all good news for a country that since 1978 has been a storehouse for weaponry brought in by Soviet invaders, provided to Afghans to counter the Soviets, or offered by other countries in the region to client militias during Afghanistan's brutal civil war in the 1990s.

However, there are two issues that could delay, hinder, or even derail Afghanistan's slow progress toward bolstering the rule of law unless they are addressed by the ANBP or another disarmament program.

The first is connected with the myriad unofficial militias or armed bands with shifting loyalties that the ANBP has not slated for disarmament. Conservative estimates put the figure at 850 such groups, with more than 65,000 members.

Militias outside the DDR program are controlled by warlords, drug lords, or even Kabul-appointed governors. While the Afghan government seems prepared to compromise with many warlords -- or await a more opportune time to either crush them or absorb them into the central government -- the parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. Such militias will likely still exist -- unofficial, but armed and potentially dangerous.

The second major issue of concern is connected with the ANBP's focus on collecting heavy weapons. While the current DDR program lists a number of small arms and light weapons in the inventory of armaments it has collected, there arguably has been no genuine effort to deal with small arms.

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, with a multitude of foreign troops armed with the most modern weaponry as well as total command of Afghan airspace, heavy weapons are not the weapon of choice for local or regional militias. Since early 2002, only once have warlords used main battle tanks against each other. Even antigovernment forces such as the neo-Taliban do not rely on heavy weaponry. The power of warlords, regional commanders, and others in control of armed groups outside the government is determined by the number of fighting men and the availability of small arms.

Discussing the issue of arms and the parliamentary elections in a recent editorial, the pro-government Kabul daily "Anis" wrote that Afghans "cannot set up a healthy parliament reflecting people's expectations and aspirations unless armed men are disarmed prior to the polls." Expressing doubts about the Afghan government's claims regarding progress in the DDR program, "Anis" added that many Afghans believe that "disarming men and certain military units, which are also shown on television, are more cosmetic than practical...[and that] local commanders still own huge arsenals of weapons in their regions" for use when needed.

For Afghanistan to truly emerge from under the rule of the gun, a genuine DDR program needs to tackle the issue of small arms. While there is not enough time before the elections to collect the hundreds of thousands of unregistered small arms, a practical step would be to declare them illegal. This would at least serve to de-legitimize those who carry such weapons. Also, by extension, those who command such armed bands may be legally barred from participating in the elections.

Unless a drastic step is taken to make weapons -- especially small arms -- less accessible and illegal before the elections, those controlling the guns are likely to gain seats in the parliament and thus legitimize their tactics -- and perhaps their regional influence.