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Afghan Militiamen to Be Enticed to Lay Down Arms

Cash and jobs will be held out to fighters who make up the country's destabilizing factions.

May 09, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nasrullah, a militiaman for 12 of his 26 years, is ready for a career change. The jihad is over, the Taliban has been chased from power and his current assignment -- guarding former King Mohammed Zaher Shah's house -- is boring. Plus, he hasn't been paid in four months.

"I'll be patient awhile longer, then I'll just go find a better solution," said Nasrullah, who left his home in Badakshan province at age 14 to take up arms against the then-Communist Afghan government. "I'll take any job, even as a construction laborer. Why not? Helping rebuild the country would be a point of pride for me."

Next month, the Afghan government will launch a nationwide program to disarm 100,000 militiamen like Nasrullah, and it's counting on many of them to share his frame of mind. The program is seen as crucial to the nation's safety and survival, even as many people doubt that it can succeed in a country so steeped in war and the culture of the gun. Still, even skeptics agree it must be tried.

Called Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program, the $51-million United Nations-directed campaign aims to convert militiamen who have known little in life but violence into law-abiding and productive citizens. To give up their arms, militiamen will be offered up to $250 cash to tide them over until they start mainstream jobs that at this point are purely hypothetical.

The premise is that such large-scale reconstruction projects as building roads, irrigation systems and power plants will soon be underway, generating employment for the demobilized militia members. Officials say the program may be the best chance of ridding the country of the factional violence and common crime now jeopardizing the nation's recovery after 23 years of chaos and destruction.

"You can't have serious development in a country like Afghanistan without some measure of the rule of law," said Sultan Aziz, senior U.N. advisor to the program. "In the current environment, the establishment of the rule of law is extremely difficult."

Warlords Rule

A year and a half after the defeat of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a balkanized collection of armed camps ruled by warlords who thumb their noses at the central government of President Hamid Karzai. A 4,700-soldier international peacekeeping force patrols the capital, Kabul, but the rest of the country is in the hands of the warlords.

Many of the warlords hold commander titles bestowed by Karzai's defense ministry. Under them are 100,000 militiamen, most of whom belonged to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, like Nasrullah, were loosely incorporated into the Ministry of Defense after the end of hostilities.

While some militia units perform responsibly, protecting civilians and keeping order, others spread mayhem by attacking rival ethnic factions, extorting truck drivers and imposing the rule of the gun in local disputes. Warlords and their minions collect and keep tens of millions of dollars in customs duties that should go to the central government.

Just as the disarmament program is gearing up, the security situation in Afghanistan has taken a turn for the worse, making it all the more urgent. In late March, armed men killed a Red Cross worker near Kandahar, and in recent days, teams clearing landmines have come under attack. The violence has had a chilling effect on aid agencies, on whom the majority of Afghans depend for basic necessities.

The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the world body in a speech this week that factional violence fanned by militias and attacks by Taliban remnants and other anti-Karzai forces are "casting a long shadow over the peace process, and indeed, over the whole future of Afghanistan."

The New Beginnings program will demobilize militia members one at a time, interviewing them to assess job skills before they report weeks later to a local employment center. In the meantime, the disarmament staff will have tried to match the men with jobs near their homes.

The U.N. hopes to place workers in two new public works programs. It is also pressing aid agencies to make jobs available to former militiamen, but that idea has been coolly received because a large portion of the men are thought to be illiterate and unskilled.

The demobilization program will be implemented by teams of up to 50 workers, who will fan out over the country in convoys with six or seven truck-container loads of equipment. The teams will move from village to village, disarming militia garrisons in a 35-mile radius and moving on.

"It's designed to be like a circus show, just put up your tents and get started," Aziz said.

Plans for Army

If all goes as planned, the demobilization effort will clear the way for a new 70,000-strong Afghan National Army that is loyal to Karzai. This force is being trained and underwritten by the U.S. Army. So far, about 4,000 troops have been trained.

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