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Afghanistan: Blast Highlights Difficulties In Disarmament Process

An official investigation has been launched in Afghanistan into a massive explosion at a local commander's secret ammunition cache on 2 May that left many dead. The commander was supposed to have been disarmed under a nationwide UN-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process, aimed at demobilizing the various Afghan warring factions and seizing all weapons in their possession. But the explosion in a village in Baghlan province highlights the difficulties in disarming warlords and militia forces that have amassed huge stores of weapons and ammunition during more than two decades of war and conflict.

Prague, 5 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The ammunition blew up in the house of Jalal Bajgah, a former local commander in Baghlan Province. He was demobilized through the nation-wide disarmament process but had secretly kept a large amount of explosives in a pit next to his home.

Bajgah, who escaped the blast unscathed, told AP that the explosives were due to be used for road construction.

Ahmad Jan Nowzadi is the media officer for Afghanistan's New Beginning Program, which oversees and coordinates the DDR process. He has called on all commanders and local militia leaders who have hidden their ammunition and weapons to surrender them to Afghan authorities.

"It is possible that other commanders have done the same, it is hard to say there is no one else," Nowzadi said. "This is our only request as there might be other cases and this should serve as a lesson for our brothers. A whole village became victim of the incident and the village is now mourning."

There have been several blasts at arm depots in recent years, but the 2 May explosion was among the deadliest. Twenty-eight people were killed and more than 50 were injured. Most of the victims were reportedly women and children. What caused the blast remains unclear.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lotfollah Mashal told RFE/RL's Afghan service that security forces find arms caches on a daily basis across Afghanistan.

"Interior Ministry police finds tens of such weapons caches everyday in every province, in every district," Mashal said. "Most of these depots are from the Jihad days against the Soviet occupying forces and some are from the Taliban era and the resistance."

The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration process was launched in Afghanistan in October 2003. The process of disarming militia forces and collecting heavy weapons is due to officially conclude in June. So far, about 50,000 militia members have given up their arms.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mashal said that a lot of ordnance remains uncollected and unaccounted for.

"One of the weaknesses of the DDR process is that it has not been carried out fully," Mashal said. "Only people who have ties with the Defense Ministry have gone through the DDR process to a certain extent; only their arms have been taken away .The ammunition and weapons they have buried under the ground, are still in their hands. The commandants and people who keep these arms in secret, they commit treason, treason against the nation and their country, they commit treason against peace and stability in Afghanistan."

Observers say warlords and militia groups pose a potential threat to parliamentary polls scheduled for September. They are expected to pressure people, especially in remote villages, to vote for them. Many warlords still have little or no commitment to the central government of President Hamid Karzai.

John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher on Afghanistan, said that even if the disarming of warlords and militia forces is successfully completed, they still pose a threat for the stability in the country.

"The fact is, commanders still retain a lot of political control because of their control over drugs and other resources that are coming out of Afghanistan, whether its carpets or gems or historical antiquities," Sifton said. "Whether you take away their weapons or not, they're still going to have a capacity to organize militias in [the] short term."

There are different estimates on the number of militia groups and their members. The disarmament program aims to disarm 60,000 men. Some estimate their real number could be much higher.

Sifton said it is difficult to give an estimate about the number of gunmen in Afghanistan.

"In many cases we are not talking about a bunch of people living in one compound, that can be counted," Sifton said. "What you're talking about is you have a commander who has the ability to organize very quickly a group of men who can act on his behalf. Maybe those men have other jobs, maybe they're farmers, maybe they have a business, maybe they don't do anything -- but the point is, when the commander calls upon them they become gunmen in the cause of the commander. And that's the concern we have."

Sifton said he believes disarmament cannot be the only measure taken against local commanders. He said the establishment of the rule of law would greatly aid the fight against warlords.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.