A once-violent Afghan village trades guns for peace

In a ceremony Friday, one village disarmed and pledged support for Kabul.

In a village square where deadly fighting raged last February between villagers and the Army of the central government, Afghans saw the first tangible signs of peace.

On Friday, local commanders symbolically handed over their weapons and pledged support for President Hamid Karzai's transitional government. Army commanders, who once attacked this town, promised never to attack again. A host of local politicians and Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics sealed the ceremony with prayers for the security of Afghans.

For Jaghatoo and other villages and towns in the province of Wardak, west of Kabul, disarmament is a milestone in the region's return to normalcy, and perhaps prosperity.

"The people of Wardak are sending a message to President Karzai," said Afghan Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak, who hails from the province and helped negotiate the disarmament. "We don't want to be a people of the gun. We want tools for farming, for sowing, for rebuilding."

The ceremony was modest, to be sure. Local commander Ghulam Rohani Nangiale presented Mr. Wardak and Crown Prince Mirwaiz Shah with five Kalashnikov assault rifles, something even the poorest rural Afghan household keeps for protection. But the broader circumstances of today's Afghanistan – the presence of US military forces, international peacekeepers, and the promise of substantial international aid – suggest that peace may have a chance.

Today, there are some 2,000 US Special Forces combing the region for pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda resistance, and stalwart political and financial support for the current government. By contrast, in 1992, when Islamist militias finally ousted the Soviet-backed government and then destroyed the country through their power struggles, the US pulled out of the region.

"Afghanistan is on the right road to peace and recovery," says Michael Robbins, a diplomat from the US Embassy in Kabul, who attended the ceremony accompanied by two burly Special Forces guards. "It is essential that everyone put aside old enmities, old hatreds, old grudges."

Pashtuns, who dominate three of the five districts here, have had unsteady, and occasionally, violent relations with members of the Hazara minority, who practice the Shia version of Islam instead of the Pashtuns' Sunni variant. More recent fighting in Jaghatoo had to do with Pashtuns' reluctance to accept a new Afghan government dominated by the Northern Alliance, which has drawn most of its recruits from the northern Tajik minority.

Local commander Ghulam Rohani Nangiale, a tall, courtly English-speaking Pashtun elder, says the time has come for peace. His handover of Kalashnikovs is only the beginning, he told his supporters and members of the visiting delegation. The rest – including tanks, mobile antiaircraft guns, landmines, mortars, and several tons of ammunition – would be handed over formally in the next few days.

"We will sacrifice all our personal interests to the national interest," he says, but then quickly adds a caveat. "The weapons we give today to this delegation should not be used against us in the future."

Mr. Nangiale's enemy of last February, General Muzaffaruddin of the Northern Alliance, accepts these terms at the ceremony. "People say, 'You've fought each other for this village, how can you come back?' But I'm proud and happy to come back here, which is possible only when we move toward lasting peace."

Still, grudges and tension persist. In front of the podium, a platoon of heavily armed Kabul policemen in riot helmets glare at the crowd for troublemakers. Each dignitary traveled to Jaghatoo with his own security detail, most wearing flak jackets and carrying weapons far more sophisticated than those handed over by commander Nangiale.

The caution is understandable – Afghan disarmament ceremonies have a tendency to go terribly wrong. In 1998, 2,000 Taliban soldiers were invited to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif by a surrendering Northern Alliance commander to help disarm his troops and take over the city. Then the Northern Alliance commander changed his mind. The arriving Taliban were massacred; witnesses say many corpses still had roses sticking out the barrels of their rifles.

But at a nearby weapons cache, local security chief Mohammad Sharif says that the people of Wardak have always wanted to give up their guns – they were compelled to defend themselves when they were attacked by others. "We don't like the gun, actually," he says, standing in a compound filled with ammunition, antiaircraft weapons, and landmines, all packed and ready for delivery to the central government. "Who likes a thing that can kill people?"

"But this time, we have a person who can guarantee the peace, Hamid Karzai, and we realize these things can't help us," he adds. "What we need are schools, universities, teachers, pens, notebooks. Nothing else." Standing beside him, his men murmur, "Inshallah," or Arabic for "God willing."

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