Demobbed Afghans Face Uncertain Future

The interim government wants militiamen to hand in their weapons, but their prospects on Civvy Street are far from promising.

Demobbed Afghans Face Uncertain Future

The interim government wants militiamen to hand in their weapons, but their prospects on Civvy Street are far from promising.

Thousands of men who've made a living fighting for one Afghan faction or another now face unemployment and poverty.

They are coming under growing pressure to give up their jobs as militiamen and hired guns following last month's call by deputy defence minister Abdul Rashid Dostum for privately-held weapons to be surrendered to the authorities.

Those failing to obey the northern commander's decree, issued in the town of Mazar-e-Sharif, will be prosecuted, even if they claim they need the weapons to defend their homes. But the militiamen have been offered little in return.

Some may get work in new western financed building and development projects and others might be recruited into the newly emerging Afghan army. But neither, initially at least, are likely to provide for the scores of thousands of demobilised troops who could end up struggling to make ends meet.

However poor their prospects may be as civilians, Dostum's campaign to disarm former combatants and explain the need to start a new, peaceful way of life has proved popular. He claims to have collected 9,000 light weapons and around 100 tanks, mortars and rocket launchers. Around 3,000 people have voluntarily given up their weapons.

One of Dostum's biggest successes was in late February when around 200 fighters loyal to the warlord Atta Mohammad disarmed at Bag-e-Jahanuma Fort, some 80 km south-east of Mazar-e-Sharif. " We have turned a new page," Atta told his troops. "Now is not the time for fighting."

Dostum recently visited three military warehouses to show journalists the weapons he had collected. At the same time, around 1,000 demobbed soldiers were undergoing parade-ground training. It looked impressive, but according to one official they came to learn how to march because they had nothing better to do. "We are starting to train them so they don't feel unwanted and abandoned," he said.

The demobilisation of a large number of soldiers, threatens to add to the country's social problems and become a new source of instability.

The UN and Afghan officials hope that many of the former militiamen will find work in western-sponsored infrastructure projects, such as major road networks, expected to start in the coming months.

"The real task is not just food for work, but cash programmes, putting money back into the economy," said Nigel Fisher, the deputy to UN special representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi. "One has to find alternatives to using your weapon to earn your living."

A good number of ex-fighters are likely to be drafted into Afghanistan's new security forces. Earlier this month, a number of western countries - including the United States and Britain - and neighbouring states pledged to provide arms and military training for a national army, air force and paramilitary police service, numbering over 100,000 men.

This came as 600 soldiers completed a six-week training course provided by British-led international peacekeepers. Drawn from the country's numerous ethnic groups, the troops will be used initially as part of the presidential guard of interim leader Hamid Karzai.

Washington is planning to set aside up to 150 special forces troops to provide "basic soldiering skills" for new army recruits over the next few weeks. The training programme is envisaged to last around two and a half months - and is expected to lead to the creation of three ground combat battalions and two border patrol battalions, providing employment for over two thousand men.

The architect of the American training efforts, Major General Charles Campbell, the chief of staff of the United States Central Command, told the New York Times that "the notion of a national army is one that resonates with all the (Afghan) parties, including the regional leaders of armed factions. Right now, there is a window of opportunity where you have warlords for lack of a better term prepared to make available soldiers (for) a national army."

Civil projects and army training programmes could eventually absorb large number of former militiamen, but for the moment will only provide employment for limited numbers of men. So while the demobilisation process appears to be making progress, the interim government will, in the short term at least, have to offer some form of financial support to help the ex-fighters adjust to civilian life.

Galima Bukarbaeva is IWPR's country director in Uzbekistan.

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