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Afghanistan: Government Prepares To Launch Nationwide Demilitarization Plan

Kabul this month is due to launch a two-year demilitarization program aimed at disarming regional fighters and reintegrating them into Afghan society. Skeptics say the plan will be difficult to implement, particularly in cities like Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The northern region is firmly under the control of local commanders loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta -- two of the country's most powerful warlords and bitter rivals. Recent clashes between armed forces loyal to Dostum and Atta have ended in an unsteady truce. Many Afghans doubt that either the truce or the demilitarization are likely to succeed.

Prague, 8 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The latest round of clashes pitting loyalists of General Abdul Rashid Dostum against those of his rival, General Muhammad Atta, have left more than a dozen people dead.

But both powerful warlords say they are committed to the central government's plan to systematically disarm regional militia groups like those fighting on their behalf in northern Afghanistan.

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, is head of Junbesh-i-Milli-yi-Islami (National Islamic Movement) and a military adviser to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. Atta, his archrival, is an ethnic Tajik and a commander of the powerful Jamiyat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) group.

The men have spent years battling for control of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's third-largest city. They each have a number of militia groups under their control.

It is precisely such groups that Kabul hopes to eventually disarm through its UN-sponsored demilitarization project. Deputy Defense Minister Gulzarak Zadran, a member of the government's disarmament commission, would not divulge the budget or the scope of the two-year project, but did say Dostum and Atta loyalists would be among those disarmed.

Dostum spokesman Faizullah Zaki told RFE/RL that Dostum is ready to disarm all the forces under his control. But he warned that smaller groups and armed individuals will prove a more difficult target.

"General Dostum is one of the political figures who started the disarmament process a few months ago," Zaki said. "On his own initiative, he unilaterally disarmed several thousand armed people in the north. But there will not be a disarmament process unless all groups participate and cooperate in it. There is no doubt that Mr. Dostum is in favor of disarmament in the north, as well as in the whole country."

Dostum's rival Atta says his men are also ready to lay down their weapons, as long as the government provides them with jobs and other assistance to help them reintegrate.

"We are ready [to disarm]. The government, the Defense Ministry, and the Disarmament Commission should make their decision," Atta said. "But in return, we ask them to provide job opportunities, income opportunities for our mujahedin who fought for the country. The process of disarmament and demilitarization should run in tandem with the implementation of the project to find employment and other opportunities for people who give up their weapons. This is our proposition."

The disarmament process could affect tens of thousands of armed men throughout the country, some of whom have been fighting since the Soviet occupation in the early 1980s. Most mujahedin have little or no education or job qualifications -- in a sense, fighting is their only "profession."

Atta's deputy Yunoos Zalmai tells RFE/RL the government must lead the way in giving armed fighters a reason to give up their weapons and pursue a different way of life.

"Why have we not disarmed so far? To whom should we give our weapons? Disarmament requires a special body, a special project," Zalmai says. "We need to rebuild our national army. Our new army will recruit 70,000 people, but there are some 200,000 armed people. Who will be recruited to the army and what will happen to the rest of them? Well, in the end, it is not our responsibility. Our government has to think about it. We are in charge of only one region. We are waiting for our government to take positive steps."

Deputy Defense Minister Zadran says under the disarmament plan the former mujahedin will have help finding employment, with job training and special loans provided.

Money allocated for the plan includes $50 million from the Japanese government. But Tokyo and the UN's Kabul office announced earlier this month that no money will be dispensed until the Defense Ministry undergoes a number of structural reforms.

Afghan Defense Minister Qasim Fahim has been accused of filling nearly all his ministry's key decision-making posts with fellow ethnic Tajiks and Panjshir Valley natives.

Deputy Defense Minister Zadram told RFE/RL the Defense Ministry has accepted the demands. "Yes, we are ready to reform and in fact, the reforms have already started and are ongoing," he said.

A Karzai spokesman said on 7 July that the Defense Ministry is soon to announce at least eight new appointments and characterized the changes as a major shake-up.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.