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Afghanistan: Government Takes First Steps On Disarming Factional Militias

Afghanistan's Defense Committee took one of its first steps toward disarming regional militia factions in the country on 11 January by creating four subcommittees that will oversee the effort. But RFE/RL reports that the absence from the 11 January meeting of one powerful regional commander, ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, reveals lingering suspicions between rival faction leaders that could slow the disarmament process.

Prague, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan government has created four subcommittees that are tasked with the difficult job of disarming the country's regional militia factions and building a new 70,000-strong Afghan national army.

The new subcommittees were formally announced after a meeting of the Afghan Defense Committee on 11 January.

The Defense Committee, which is headed by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, groups together several of the powerful regional commanders whose own private militias must take part in disarmament for the program to be a success.

The most important of the four subcommittees, the one that will oversee the actual disarmament of the regional militias, is headed by Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Atiqullah Baryalai. He is an ethnic Tajik and a member of Fahim's Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the former Northern Alliance.

Baryalai told RFE/RL the process of building the new national army is unlikely to be complete before June 2004, when the United Nations mandate for the Afghan Transitional Authority is due to expire and elections are to be conducted. "The selection of qualified personnel already in the forces, and the selection of volunteers and infrastructure of the Afghan national army, are the most important factors [in its creation]. Of course, to accomplish this and to train the personnel will take at least four years. So, hopefully in four years we will have a professionally trained, organized, and strong army," Baryalai said.

Afghan experts and Western military analysts say the success of the disarmament program will depend, to a large extent, on the cooperation of regional faction leaders within the Defense Committee who have their own private militias.

One hopeful sign is that two regional leaders who are based outside of Kabul attended the 11 January meeting. They are Ismail Khan, the ethnic Tajik governor in the western province of Herat, and Gul Agha Sherzi, the Pashtun governor of Kandahar Province.

Defense Minister Fahim, who controls the powerful Panjshiri militia forces of Jamiat-i-Islami, attended the meeting in the capacity of the Defense Committee director.

But a key rival of Fahim's faction in northern Afghanistan, ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, was not present.

Analysts say Dostum's failure to attend the important meeting suggests that he has lingering concerns about his safety in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan that are not controlled by his militia.

Despite being named last summer as Karzai's special representative in northern Afghanistan, Dostum has not visited Kabul since the Loya Jirga that confirmed Karzai's Transitional Authority cabinet in June.

Analysts say Dostum's concerns about his safety in Kabul clearly have been reinforced by the assassinations of two Afghan ministers in Kabul during the past year: Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir and Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman.

Dostum's troops also have clashed repeatedly in northern Afghanistan during the past year with fighters from Fahim's faction. A private ethnic Hazara militia in the north also has been fighting against Dostum's militia.

Despite the difficulties ahead suggested by Dostum's absence on 11 January, UN special representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi remains positive about developments.

Brahimi's spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, told RFE/RL that the creation of the subcommittees is an important part of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan. "[Brahimi] reaffirmed the international community's commitment to work with the Defense Committee [toward the goal of disarming militia factions and creating an Afghan national army]," de Almeida e Silva said.

Baryalai said the subcommittee on disarmament that he heads will start its work in the near future by training experts to collect weapons across the country.

Baryalai said a separate subcommittee will supervise the reintegration into civil society of factional fighters who surrender their weapons but decide not to volunteer for the Afghan national army. "A [sub]committee of civil service headed by [ethnic Hazara Vice President] Karim Khalili will also include other deputy ministers capable of attracting manpower to create skills and employment in cooperation with the international community," Baryalai said.

A subcommittee assigned to supervise the selection, recruitment, and training of soldiers for the national army is headed by General Rahim Wardak, an ethnic Pashtun.

General Gulzarak Khan Zadran, an ethnic Pashtun from the southeastern province of Paktia, is in charge of the fourth subcommittee, which will supervise the selection and recruitment of officers.

The Japanese government is contributing the majority of funds for the disarmament program. Western military forces, including those from the United States, Britain, and Germany, have said they will help train troops for the national army.

The strength of the Afghan national army currently stands at about 2,000 trained soldiers.