UN aims to disarm Afghan fighters

After months of delay, the UN campaign is beginning to yield small successes. But top commanders are reluctant to turn in guns.

Islamuddin has been a soldier for nearly half his life - and he is only 22.

Now, the young man whose education had primarily consisted of how to handle a kalashnikov has agreed to turn in his weapon in exchange for $200, household food staples, and training for a new career. The United Nations' plan to get Afghans to beat their swords into plowshares is being piloted here, in this largely rural corner of northeastern Afghanistan, in part because men like Islamuddin - and most importantly, his commander - are keen to turn a new page.

"When the UN came and took the gun off my shoulder, I was very happy, says Islamuddin, who is trying to pick up learning to read where he left off - in the fourth grade. "Now there's more freedom in the country, a feeling of peace, so maybe I can do something else."

After months of delay, the UN campaign for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR for short, now can claim a series of recent achievements - albeit small ones. A key test looms as the nation's powerful defense minister must decide this month whether to surrender his militia in the Panjshir Valley to the new national army.

Recent successes include:

• A belated agreement Sunday from the defense ministry to remove militia and heavy arms from Kabul.

• The surrender of over 30 armored vehicles by two rival warlords, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Atta Mohammed, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.

• The decommissioning of 600 men in the southeastern province of Gardez last month.

Other disarmament ceremonies are planned next for Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. These orchestrated events are targeting some 6,000 men in the most pliant provinces. If it works, the UN plans to go after another 94,000 men.

But even here in Kunduz, a place of unpaved roads, horse-drawn carriages, and relative quiet in the post-Taliban era, it has been difficult to get the top brass on board. Until recently, there was no international peacekeeping presence here - or anywhere outside of Kabul - to lure Afghans to disarm. Now, up to 450 German soldiers from ISAF, the International Security Resistance Force set up after the fall of the Taliban two years ago, are supposed to arrive in Kunduz. During a recent visit, only 35 had arrived. They stayed on base; few Afghans here knew they were in town.

"As far as the commanders are concerned, they will resist any challenge to their authority," says Abdul Basir, an officer in charge of the demobilization part of the three-stage plan, formally called Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program, a more upbeat term than "disarmament," a word synonymous with defeat in Dari and Pashto .

"We have commanders who make huge sums of money from what they do," says Mr. Basir. While they used to get foreign support to fight the Soviets and later, the Taliban, now they collect border taxes, protection money, and make money off illegal enterprises - including a record boost this fall in poppy production, sold for its heroin.

"The commanders don't have the support of the people anymore," he says. As he meets people out in the field to recruit them for the program he says, "They ask us, 'Why didn't you come sooner?'"

The plan's launch, a $41 million project sponsored by Japan, was delayed for months, due in part to difficulties in getting warlords and commanders to cooperate. Gen. Daoud, who has no competitor in this region, finally agreed to disarm 1,000 of his men; there are about 4,000 left. Mr. Dostum and Mr. Mohammed, however, have insisted in the past that they can't be expected to reduce their forces if others aren't made to do so as well, a "you first" excuse analysts expect to keep some of the most problematic areas on hold.

The reluctance to disarm personal militias extends even to the government's top commander, Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim. The UN disarmament plan obliges Mr. Fahim to surrender his forces, jeopardizing the loyalty of his main supporters.

Often, the real route to making DDR work is convincing mid-level commanders to come on board. But they expect more sophisticated jobs than the career makeovers on offer, which include agriculture, demining, vocational training, small business training, and a chance to join the Afghan Nation Army, which is still in formation.

"Finding jobs for the mid-level commanders is hard," says Lisa Pinsley, an American adviser here for ANBP. "They're used to getting more important jobs - and more money."

Commander Khal Khan, a rotund, middle-aged man with a large gray turban, was one of those who took orders to marshal several hundred of his men and to ask them to turn in their kalashnikovs.

Mr. Khan, in the war business for 20 years, says he'd be glad to give his gun up, too - if he really gets security in return.

"If I personally return my gun, who will guarantee my safety? I've got lots of enemies after 20 year of war, and I need to worry about that," says Khan, in between entertaining a floorfull of local powerbrokers. His job now? "Chief of the jobless," he jokes. "What can I do? All of my life has been in kalashnikovs."

To be sure, some here wonder how quickly that can change. Many men have more than one gun. A top-shelf kalashnikov goes for $500 here, and the lowest quality, about $200. Many of the better fighters keep more than one.

Moreover, perhaps more threatening than the wash of smaller arms across the country is the heavier guns - mortars, rockets, and artillery.

"Kalashnikovs are like sand. They're everywhere," says Lt. Col. John Tibbetts of the US Army, speaking on behalf of the US contingent to NATO, which now runs ISAF. "And the guy who turns them in probably has got two more at home."

"But it's a start. The real proof will be whether we can find these people jobs," Colonel Tibbets says. "Put them to work and disarmament and demobilization will take care of itself."

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