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Afghanistan: UN To Launch Long-Delayed Disarmament Program

The United Nations says it is ready this week to start implementing a long-delayed program aimed at disarming 100,000 Afghan militia fighters. A modest pilot project starts on 24 October with the goal of disarming 1,000 fighters in the northern Afghan province of Konduz.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations says its long-overdue program to disarm Afghanistan's factional militias will begin later this week with a pilot project in the northeastern province of Konduz.

The $41 million UN project -- known as the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program -- aims to eventually disarm 100,000 Afghan factional militia fighters and reintegrate them into civilian life.

UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva says the initial pilot project has a more modest goal of disarming about 1,000 combatants in Konduz, where Germany is deploying up to 450 soldiers as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Christopher Langton, a regional expert on Afghanistan and Russia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that it is essential for the credibility of internationally backed reforms that disarmament begins before a Constitutional Loya Jirga starts in December.

"Something is going to start. But it will start in a very small way -- and it will start before the Loya Jirga [in December]. It has to start before the Loya Jirga to give the Loya Jirga any kind of feel that it is dealing with demobilization, disarmament, and rehabilitation [of factional militia fighters]. And it needs to [start soon] because it is very much a part of the future, and of security in general," Langton said.

But Langton said he is skeptical about the chances of success for voluntary disarmament projects that do not simultaneously involve rival militia factions. Under UN plans, initial success in Konduz would lead to similar pilot projects in the southeastern province of Paktiya and in the central province of Bamiyan.

Continued success would pave the way for a major disarmament effort across the rest of the country. The expanded program reportedly would give priority to disarming rival militias near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, as well as militia fighters in Parwan Province from the mostly ethnic Tajik faction of Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says the UN program intends to remove the support structure beneath Afghan warlords by disengaging their lower-level commanders and troops through individualized counseling, vocational training, and job creation.

In a report issued three weeks ago, the ICG noted the Afghan Defense Ministry has become a key player in disarmament due to the lack of a substantial international security force outside of Kabul or a strong Afghan national army.

The ICG report says the "heavy footprint" of the Afghan Defense Ministry in the disarmament process creates a "high risk" that it could be co-opted by Fahim's own private militia faction.

For example, the Defense Ministry is now responsible for assigning and training teams of 70 officers tasked with compiling data on militia units and personnel in each district to be covered by the disarmament program. But one of the militia groups involved in sporadic clashes near Mazar-e Sharif is loyal to Fahim's faction of the former Northern Alliance.

Like Langton, the ICG concludes that a credible process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former commanders and fighters into society is a critical prerequisite for meaningful political reform in Afghanistan -- including the adoption of a new constitution, judicial reforms, and democratic elections by next year.

This month's UN Security Council resolution on an expanded mandate for the International Security Assistance Force is expected to contribute to disarmament efforts by putting more international soldiers in tense areas outside of Kabul Province.

But experts on Afghanistan are still waiting to see if the expanded ISAF mandate will bring about enough international deployments to make the disarmament program successful.