In the wake of a political makeover by President Hamid Karzai, Afghan authorities are trying to accelerate a $300-million program to disarm militia groups. The program has lagged far behind expectations so far. Officials contend the disarmament effort will be a major factor in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, which are widely viewed as the lynchpin of Afghanistan's stabilization process.
The program, formally known as Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), is designed to break warlord control over many Afghan provinces by providing militia members with the training needed to find alternate sources of income in the civilian sector. Understandably, warlords have fiercely resisted the initiative, which is financed by the United Nations and Japan. For months, the DDR program has been virtually paralyzed. The lack of cooperation from Defense Minister Gen. Mohammad Fahim, the US reluctance to exert pressure on warlords and Karzai's own tardiness in addressing the issue have been contributing factors in the slow pace of disarmament.
Karzai has said his last-minute decision to dump Fahim as his vice-presidential running mate in the October 9 election was designed in large measure to break the DDR log-jam. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "With the changes taking place, stiffer penalties and corrections, DDR will now be speeded up before the elections," said a hopeful Karzai.
Other Afghan leaders suggest that accelerating DDR is vital for ensuring a stable campaign for both the presidential vote and the parliamentary election due to be held in the spring of 2005. If warlord militias remain largely intact, they could easily intimidate potential voters in many regions, thus influencing the outcome of balloting. "Elections without DDR are not feasible," says Vice President Hedayat Amin Arsala.
Lt. General Rick Hillier, the head of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, said neutralizing the influence of Afghan warlords is the biggest challenge facing those promoting stabilization. "Warlords are a bigger threat than the terrorists because you can't build state institutions or enforce rule of law or build a stable environment before the elections," Hillier said. "You have to create in the warlords' minds that DDR is irreversible."
For DDR to work as envisioned, it would appear that Karzai and the international community, in particular the United States, must do a better job of coordinating their actions. The US Defense Department has long considered warlord militias to be strategic assets. Many warlords, including Fahim, helped American forces oust the Taliban from power in 2001, and some continue to help US forces in the ongoing hunt for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Accordingly, the Pentagon has been a lackluster supporter of DDR, declining to exert influence over warlords to disarm. Karzai's reluctance to get tough with the warlords was connected to the lack of US support for DDR, according to a senior aide to the Afghan president. Western diplomats have countered that Karzai dragged his feet for months before deciding to crack down.
With the elections drawing nearer, both Karzai's administration and US officials have come to recognize DDR's importance within the overall stabilization process. On July 14, Karzai finally signed a decree threatening warlords that if they failed to comply with DDR, they "will be considered disloyal and rebellious." The Pentagon, meanwhile, has grown more enthusiastic about DDR.
Despite Karzai's decree, along with Fahim's removal from the election ticket, questions remain about DDR's potential for success. Earlier this year, the UN and the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD) agreed to collect all heavy weapons from the warlords and disarm 40 percent of their militia units by June 30. However, only 30 percent of the estimated 4,860 heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery pieces, had been collected by the deadline. These figures do not include weapons belonging to Ismail Khan, the chief of the western province of Herat. Khan has refused to allow the UN to conduct a survey of his heavy weapons. Meanwhile, only 12,000 out of an estimated 100,000 fighters had undergone DDR training as of mid-July. Units directly controlled by Fahim have reportedly put up the most resistance to DDR.
Complicating the DDR process, there is still no agreement on how many militia fighters are currently under arms. The UN has reduced its original estimate of fighters needing to go through DDR from 100,000 to 60,000, arguing that many commanders on the MOD payroll have been in charge of phantom units. However, the Afghan army's chief of army, Gen. Bismillah Khan, insists that the figure of 100,000 men is still correct. (Khan is a close Fahim ally). Meanwhile, Karzai says the real threat comes from only about 20,000 men. Even if warlordism is curbed in Afghanistan, the benefits for the country could prove fleeting, warned Arsala, one of Karzai's current vice presidents. "Warlords, drugs and terrorism have to be dealt with simultaneously and it's not happening yet," Arsala said.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."