Where Guns Rule, Disarmament Falls Short

Special to The Times

Taj Mohammed picked up a gun when he was 18 and fought the Soviets, and then the Taliban, in the Panjshir Valley, the heart of the Afghan resistance against occupiers. After two decades of serving his homeland, the longtime commander is among 100,000 fighters who have been told to hand over their weapons and return to civilian life, as part of a $370-million United Nations plan to disarm Afghanistan.

But the plan, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program, which began last fall, has been floundering.

Afghanistan’s top warlords have been reluctant to cooperate, and the mujahedin fighters have felt betrayed, jeopardizing the chances of bringing security to the nation before a general election planned for September.

“It’s a big failure,” said Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul. “We have no hope of rebuilding Afghanistan when the rule of gun is outside Kabul.”


Referring to the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban regime, Wilder said: “In the first six months after November 2001, the warlords wouldn’t have thumbed their noses. But now they know the United States has problems in Iraq and feel they don’t have to listen.”

By this month, about 40,000 men loyal to rival militias were to have been disarmed, with the rest turning in their guns over the next three years.

So far, only about 6,000 have responded. The most powerful warlords in the country, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammed and Ismail Khan, have been reluctant to surrender their weapons and their men because they would lose power.

Unusual concessions have been offered, including one by the Japanese Embassy, the biggest funder of the program, to send military units overseas for business training.


The disarmament program calls for the United Nations to verify lists of soldiers provided by regional commanders.

Originally, the soldiers were to hand over a functioning weapon, usually a Kalashnikov, in exchange for $200 and a bag of food. The money and food were meant to tide them over while they looked for work, such as ditch-digging or demining, or were taught skills such as farming or shopkeeping.

But the program has been a case of trying to implement a 21st century idea within a feudal society.

Commanders in towns and villages in Afghanistan provide weapons, food and wives to residents in exchange for allegiance, much the way society operated in medieval Europe.


The aim of the program has been to free soldiers from their dependency on local commanders in particular, and military life in general, thus breaking the power the warlords have on communities.

But hundreds of fighters complained to the United Nations that the commanders would release them from service but would take their $200. The world body recently discontinued the payments.

“The U.N. panicked, then canceled the $200 clause,” said Noel Cossins, an advisor to the Disarmament and Reintegration Commission, funded by the U.N. to handle the reintegration of fighters into civilian life. “Now the big commanders are saying, ‘See? You can’t trust the U.N.’ ”

The other problem, Cossins said, was that the United States was unwilling to take on the warlords.


U.S. officials “are obsessed with the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and are prepared to use any resource to that end,” Cossins said.

“The people who are being called warlords are the ones armed by the Americans to take on the Taliban,” he said. “We are getting rid of a bunch of military people who are ill-disciplined and replacing them with another.”

It has also been hard to find jobs for soldiers who, for the most part, are illiterate, have little experience other than fighting and yet are seen as too undisciplined to serve in the new Afghan national army. About 200 soldiers loyal to Taj Mohammed have been disarmed, and he has surrendered about 50 heavy weapons. But he has been reluctant to hand over any more lists of fighters because there has been no clear sense of what they would do in civilian life.

“The mujahedin who were disarmed last year have not been given professions,” he said. “They have been walking around without anything to do. When my soldiers leave, there should be the possibility of jobs in the private sector, or the Afghan police or army. They haven’t offered us an alternative.”


In some cases, the warlords and their fighters have been responsible for the increase in crime in cities. Illegal drugs account for nearly half the nation’s gross domestic product, and poppy crops are expected to reach record levels this year.

Jean Arnault, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, said recently that the militias that were to be disbanded had not been helping to protect the country.

That job has been performed by international peacekeepers and the Afghan national army. The militias have been involved “neither in combating terrorism nor in fighting organized crime or drug trafficking,” Arnault said. “Quite the contrary, many of them have been, in the past two years, involved in factional fighting, which is a continuing cause of instability and of suffering for the communities affected by it.”

In Kabul, where about 6,500 foreign soldiers under the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization patrol the streets day and night, many residents fear that the city will fall under the control of rogue commanders. Warlords virtually destroyed Kabul in the 1990s as they tried to control the capital.


“If NATO left tomorrow, the city would collapse into civil war within 24 hours. People are afraid of the commanders,” said Weed, a political activist who campaigns for women’s rights and preferred to be identified only by her first name.

Parents in Kabul are afraid to send their children to school because child-trafficking is increasing. In the last five months of 2003, the U.N. Human Rights Commission received 300 complaints of kidnapping. One Kabul resident, whose two cousins, girls ages 4 and 8, were kidnapped in May as they walked to school with their mother, said a warlord living north of the capital had demanded $10,000 for their release.

“The police are too scared because the commander is too powerful,” said the resident, who requested anonymity. “How many people in this country have that kind of money?”

Warlord Taj Mohammed said that he supported the disarmament project but that the uncertainty of Afghanistan’s future gave him pause.


“If mujahedin [are] disarmed in the south and Taliban came again, who will be there to stand against them?” he asked. “Who can say the United States will stay for a long time? Tomorrow they can say that Afghanistan is a free country and leave.

“The present government in Afghanistan is a result of the hard work of mujahedin in the last 24 years,” he said. “They are here because of our hard work. God forbid if this country goes toward instability, because it would fall to the mujahedin to save it again.”