Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Disarmament a Never-Ending Process

One year on, the new disarmament programme has little to boast of.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Disarmament presents a huge challenge in a country like Afghanistan, which has amassed countless weapons during three decades of war. If you don’t know how many weapons you started with, how will you know when you are finished?

No one is prepared to hazard a precise estimate of the number of illegal arms in the country, although military officials say privately that there may well be more than one million weapons in the northern provinces alone.

Add on the large numbers of guns still floating around the rest of the country, and the 20,000 or so weapons that have been collected under the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups programme, DIAG, launched in June 2005, hardly seem cause for celebration, say some observers. Since 7,000 of them were old, rusty or otherwise unusable, it is clear that disarmament in Afghanistan has a very long way to go.

DIAG is part of the Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Programme, ANBP, funded under the United Nations Development Programme by an international consortium of donors including Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands.

The first phase of disarmament, titled Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, targeted combatants belonging to semi-formal military units existing outside the Afghan National Army, and ended in July 2005.

The subsequent DIAG scheme focused its attention instead on the irregular armed groups that surround various strongmen, who often terrorise and extort the local population based on their strength of arms.

DIAG spokesman Ahmad Jan Nawzadi estimates that there are still 1,800 such armed groups, consisting of nearly 125,000 individuals, across Afghanistan.

“Many of these groups are involved in drug cultivation and trafficking, assisting or protecting drug smugglers, and creating insecurity in the country,” he told a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif in early May.

Nawzadi told IWPR that nearly 944 former militia commanders had been disbanded, while 20,411 weapons of different types had been collected since the programme began in June 2005 through mid-April this year. The programme is slated to run through 2007.

Of the weapons collected, said Nawzadi, 13,576 pieces were still in working order and were handed over to the Afghan National Army. The rest were destroyed.

“There are still some commanders who have not been completely disarmed,” he said. “They have hidden some of their weapons.”

Past and present warlords are unhappy that they are expected to hand over their weapons with no recompense. The programme pledges to help the men who are disarmed find jobs in the private sector, but the Afghan economy at this point cannot easily accommodate large numbers of recently unemployed.

“This programme is completely unfair because the government wants to get our weapons for nothing,” said a former commander in the northern province of Faryab, who did not want to be named. “The mujahedin acquired these weapons at the cost of their lives and they will not lose them for free.”

This commander was sceptical that DIAG would succeed in disarming the population.

“The few weapons that were surrendered to the government were all useless and not worth keeping,” he said. “If the time for using weapons is gone, at least we can sell them. That would be better than giving them to the government for free.”

But while acknowledging the difficulties, Nawzadi insists that DIAG will accomplish its goal.

“When we come to the commanders in the future, they may not hand over their arms easily,” he said. “But the programme is organised in such a way that when there is pressure on a commander, he will have to submit his arms.”

DIAG has three phases, the first of which was for commanders to disarm voluntarily, something that many of them did in the run-up to the parliamentary election last September. Retaining links with illegal armed groups was grounds for disqualification for potential candidates, so last summer saw a rush of former warlords trying to obtain the necessary certification that their arms had been handed in.

The second phase of DIAG involves asking local commanders to hand in their weapons. This programme depends heavily on cooperation from the law enforcement agencies, since it is up to them to help DIAG officials locate arms caches and their owners.

“In order to collect arms, we really need the help of local police and national army,” said Nawzadi.

If commanders fail to surrender their arms in response to official requests, DIAG will then disarm them by force.

“Armed groups must realise that the police and national army are right outside their doors and that they will be disarmed,” said Yousuf Stanizai, spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry. “The time for using weapons is over.”

Stanizai insisted that the programme is going according to plan, and it will be completed on schedule.

But some analysts believe that collecting weapons in Afghanistan is an impossible task, given the close ties between militia commanders and elements within government.

“Local commanders are widely supported by government officials in Afghan ministries, and they have protected the interests of high-ranking government officials in their areas,” said Assadullah Walwalji, a political analyst who is a former Afghan military officer.

According to Walwalji, many government officials were appointed with the help of various armed groups, which in turn control large swathes of the population. This provides grassroots support for officials, and acts as a deterrent should Kabul get any ideas about removing them.

The narcotics trade, he added, also plays a role,

“Drug smuggling is mostly conducted by these groups, which are linked to drug mafias in most of the Afghan ministries.”

The international community itself bears some responsibility for the problem, continued Walwaji, since it has provided political cover to many former warlords turned politicians.

“As long as these commanders are not removed from high-ranking government organs, collecting a few weapons will not have any advantages,” he said.

Another obstacle to disarmament is the ongoing insurgency by the Taleban and their allies, which seems to be bringing more arms into the country every day. These weapons, and those who wield them, do not fall under DIAG, said Nawzadi.

“If weapons are distributed to government opponents, it is not our problem,” he said. “The DIAG programme collects arms which are in the hands of illegal armed groups across the country. Those who fight the government are considered enemies of the government, and the government must deal with them.”

Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif, says that the blame for DIAG’s failure rests squarely with those in power.

“The government could collect all the weapons if it wanted to, but since the it is linked to the commanders, it has no reason to disarm them,” he said.

Still, the situation is improving, added Babak. With the new national army and police gaining strength, the ability of local armed groups to terrorise the population is waning.

“Today no commander across the country can fight the army and police, so the government can disarm the commanders if it imposes pressure on them,” he said.

At the same time, Babak cautioned that parts of the official defence and police institutions retain uncomfortably close ties with the illegal groups.

“They are closely linked,” he said. “Until the defence and interior ministries are reformed and begin to implement the arms collection process honestly, more money will be spent and other programmes named DDR or DIAG will be set up, yet Afghanistan will not be rescued from all these weapons.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.