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Afghanistan: Bonn Conference Gives New Impetus To National Army

Yesterday's Bonn conference on Afghan stability and reconstruction has endorsed the creation of an Afghan national army. But the plan relies on the difficult task of disarming regional private armies and receiving an estimated $700 million in aid to help train the force over the next two years.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's international conference on Afghan stability and reconstruction has given new impetus to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's bid to create an Afghan national army.

It was during the conference in Bonn that Karzai announced he had signed a decree on the creation of the new military force and that progress has been made on a declaration about Afghanistan's friendly relations with all of its neighbors. "Today, indeed, we announced the decree on the national Afghan army. We also saw today the agreement by our neighbors for the Kabul declaration to be done later in December," Karzai said.

Karzai said his decree calls for an "efficient, mobile, and well-paid armed force" of no more than 70,000 Afghan troops and officers -- representing all of the country's main ethnic groups -- to be fully trained and equipped within two years.

U.S. Afghan coordinator David Johnson said it will cost $700 million to train, equip, and sustain the force for two years. The funds, so far, have not been raised from international donors.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer welcomed Karzai's decree as one of the chief accomplishments at yesterday's Bonn conference, which assessed the progress made during the last year in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan. "Of particular importance is that President Karzai today signed a decree to build up the Afghan national army. This Afghan national army is not only important for the security of Afghanistan but also for the territorial integrity of the country," Fischer said.

The need for Afghanistan's central government to control a military force strong enough to exert authority in areas outside of Kabul was, indeed, one of the dominant themes of the Bonn conference.

With the United States and its European allies displaying reluctance during the past year toward Karzai's calls for international troops to be deployed as peacekeepers outside of Kabul, Afghanistan's central government has been unable to exert authority in the provincial regions.

Instead, the leaders of rival militia factions continue to control different provinces with their own private armies, several of which are thought to number as many as 30,000 troops. By some estimates, these private militias collectively number as many as 700,000 armed troops.

Karzai said yesterday that all of these private militias will be disbanded within a year and that their weaponry, including tanks, artillery, and rocket launchers, will be collected with the help of the United Nations and Japan. In the end, he said, the weaponry will be turned over to the Afghan Defense Ministry to help arm the new national army.

But the fighting that continues to flare up between rival factions across the country demonstrates that Karzai's administration still holds little or no sway over regional militia commanders.

The involvement in some clashes of troops that are part of Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim's Jamiat-i-Islami faction also raises questions about whether the rivals of ethnic Tajik militias will be willing to surrender their weaponry to the Defense Ministry.

But Karzai insists that all of the regional militias will be disarmed -- without exception.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the special Afghan envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said the disarmament program should be seen as a warning to regional commanders that Afghanistan is at the end of the era when the "rule of the gun" held sway over the rule of law. "This is a message, also, to all those, whoever they may be, inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan, who see their interest in the continuation of the problem, rather than in its solution, that they had better reconsider their position and accept that there is much more to gain in the long term for everybody from peace than from conflict," Brahimi said.

Still, the international community has, so far, refused every request made by Karzai during the last year for additional foreign troops to serve as peacekeepers in areas outside of Kabul.

The United States, Europe, and the United Nations have all said that the answer to Afghanistan's internal security dilemma lies not with more foreign troops but, rather, with the creation of an Afghan national army overseen by the civilian government.

Javier Solana, Europe's foreign-policy and security chief, defended the European position yesterday. He said Europe is playing a significant role by bringing stability to the Afghan capital through its commitments under the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. "The peacekeeping force that has been deployed in Kabul from the very beginning, it has been mainly a European force, and you know very well that the beginning [of next year], January the first, the countries that will be leading that force will be Germany and the Netherlands, again, two European countries. So, I think the Europeans are doing the utmost they can to help the people of Afghanistan to give them a future and to give them, and the region also, the stability they deserve," Solana said.

The United States, for its part, has an estimated 8,000 troops serving in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. But rather than serving as peacekeepers, those troops are engaged in the effort to track down the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

That goal has been criticized by Western military experts who note that Afghan recruits can earn better pay by working with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition than they can by joining the Afghan national army.

And by enlisting troops from various rival militias to help with the antiterrorism campaign, the United States also has been accused of enflaming the situation, particularly when troops of one Afghan militia faction move into areas controlled by their rivals and attempt to disarm their opponents under the banner of the antiterrorism campaign.

There have been three attempts to create an Afghan national army in the past year, and all three attempts have failed. According to a timetable announced by the central government last February, the Afghan national army should already comprise about 70,000 troops.

But the latest estimates from Western military officials in ISAF suggest that only about 1,500 Afghans have enlisted and have been trained so far for the Afghan force.

Most of those troops are either ethnic Tajiks or ethnic Uzbeks from factions of the former Northern Alliance, which helped oust the Taliban from Kabul a year ago with the backing of U.S. air power.

Although Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in the country, there is little representation of ethnic Pashtuns in the Afghan force today.