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

Demobilisation Moves Closer

Defence ministry changes to unblock countrywide disarmament scheme.
By Rahim Gul

The Afghan government looks set to announce a defence ministry reshuffle which will open the way to disarming the country’s armed militias – seen as crucial if free elections are to take place next year.

IWPR has learned that President Hamid Karzai met his cabinet to discuss a new, more ethnically diverse line-up at the ministry on August 25.

The Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, known as DDR, was supposed to begin in July, but international donors have refused to allow it to go ahead until their demand for significant personnel changes is met.

Unlike other post-conflict countries where the United Nations ran the demobilisation programme, the Afghan government – specifically the defence ministry – is in charge of DDR.

But ever since the largely Tajik force of Jamiat-e-Islami moved into Kabul in late 2001, the defence ministry has been packed with them to the exclusion of other political factions and ethnic groups.

Jamiat commander-in-chief Mohammad Qasim Fahim is defence minister, and tens of thousands of mujahedin fighters more or less affiliated to the former Northern Alliance remain under arms. They are loosely subordinate to the ministry, but quite separate from the nascent Afghan National Army, which has about 5,000 newly trained soldiers.

It will be difficult enough to persuade Afghans to disarm when violence remains prevalent across much of the country. Few regional militias will be ready to disband as long as they see that one faction has gained complete control of the centralised defence machine.

The pressure to change is coming from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, UNAMA, and from Japan, which has pledged 35 million of the 50 million US dollars needed for the disarmament programme.

“Our stance is very clear,” said Kenji Isezaki, Japan’s special representative for the DDR programme. “Until we see substantial ministry of defence reform which can be accepted by the public we will not start the process.”

Isezaki emphasised that DDR is not about taking guns away from individuals, in a country where private ownership of guns is very high, but the “deconstruction of military formations”.

Colonel Painda Mohammad, secretary of the defence ministry’s DDR commission, told IWPR that it had suggested personnel changes in 22 senior posts. Four names for each post have been forwarded to President Karzai, who will make the final selection.

“We have introduced these changes to motivate people to trust the defence ministry,” said Painda Mohammad.

A spokesman for Karzai’s press office, Engineer Wasel, refused to comment on the names which had been put forward, or when the appointments would be made public. “It isn’t clear when it will be announced,” he said. “It is confidential and will only be announced to the people when Karzai issues an order.”

Delays to the process have raised concerns about whether enough troops will have been disarmed and demobilised for next June’s elections to take place in relative security. But Wasel said he was confident that the DDR programme could be completed ahead of the vote.

Isezaki was similarly optimistic that as long as the ministry reshuffle happened soon, the process would not take too long because the armed groups involved are relatively well organised. “In Sierra Leone it took one year to disarm 50,000 militiamen,” he said. “Here, however, it is not militias but soldiers from the old army… once rolling out, it should be relatively fast.”

He added that the 1999 slaughter in East Timor had taught the world a lesson about what can happen if armed factions are not disarmed prior to holding elections.

DDR involves first counting the weapons - and their owners – belonging to armed units around the country, and then demobilising them, incorporating some of the men into the regular army. There are many problems ahead – some of the unofficials disarmament experiments already carried out have amounted to strong local commanders removing weapons from weaker rival groupings.

Even in Kabul, where central government authority is strongest, the khaki uniforms of the old militias are still a common sight, and the defence ministry seems in no hurry to disband them. The Kabul garrison – based just behind the compound of the international peacekeeping force ISAF – is one such force.

One of its senior officers, Major-General Mohammad Shari, thinks his men will be exempt from the demobilisation process. “The Kabul garrison is run by the defence ministry,” he told IWPR. “We are not involved in the DDR process, and even if the reforms come to the garrison, we are not ready to surrender our weapons.”

North of Kabul, IWPR spoke to Jamiat soldiers based in Parwan province, who voiced fairly typical concerns about a future outside the military, their only livelihood for many years.

“We don’t know anything except fighting and weapons, so if we hand in our arms we will have no future,” said Abdul Mujib, a soldier from the Second Division of the Fifth Army Corps.

Under the disarmament programme, demobilised soldiers are supposed to be offered civilian jobs and training. The Second Division’s commander, Brigadier-General Maulana Abdul Rahman, gave a stark warning if this is not forthcoming, “Unless employment opportunities are offered during disarmament, they [former soldiers] could commit many destructive activities…in my opinion the downsizing process could have dangerous repercussions.”

Afghan civilians are hopeful that disarmament will work – but they have reservations about how successful it will be.

Mohammad Shah, who lives in Kabul, wants to see it produce a situation where “central government gets strong, and elections can be carried out peacefully and fairly”.

“There must be full ethnic representation in the defence ministry, from the minister to the lowest ranks, or else the process of weapon collection will not work,” he stressed.

“Barbarians have ruled here for ages by force of arms,” said Faqir Shah, who lives in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul. “People with weapons just do whatever they want.”

Rahim Gul Sarwan is an independent journalist, and Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.