KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan warlords began turning in heavy weapons to the government Thursday in the first significant step toward the demilitarization of the capital since Russian tanks rolled in 26 years ago.
A convoy of Russian-made artillery, including BM-21 rocket launchers, D30 howitzers and antitank missiles nicknamed City Killers because of their ability to destroy a city block in one blast, queued up along Darlaman Road in Kabul's southern district.
The equipment, much of it old and rusting, was given up by about 20 to 30 warlords under the terms of a 2001 international accord. The hand-over doesn't necessarily mean the warlords will lose significant power immediately: Their fighters still have modern weapons.
The location of the arms collection was as significant as the moment itself. The vehicles all faced ruined Darlaman Palace, symbolic of the destruction of Kabul. Though the weapons were made by Russians, the capital was destroyed by warring factions that divided Kabul after the Soviets completed their withdrawal in 1989.
A hundred arms-laden vehicles were moved to a military base about 10 miles outside the city and are now the property of the central government. They belonged to as many as 30 private military commanders loyal to the Northern Alliance and its leader, Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim.
The warlords are expected to turn in 300 more weapons in the next month, which reportedly would rid the capital of such heavy artillery.
"We have relatives, friends, buildings destroyed by these weapons," said Maj. Gen. Sher Karimi, chief of operations at the Defense Ministry. "The mere sight of vehicles moving out of the city has a great psychological effect on everyone."
The purge is part of the Bonn agreement, the postwar blueprint for Afghanistan that was signed in 2001 in Germany.
"The working vehicles will be sent to the Afghan National Army, and those that are not working, we will leave at the base, not throw into the desert," Karimi said. "We have to keep them, at least as souvenirs of the wars."
Canadian army Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie, deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force, as the peacekeepers in Afghanistan are known, helped bring the factions together.
"All the various owners of the weapons had to share a future vision of the city," he said. "They had to trust each other, and if they didn't, then they trust the ISAF."
Thursday's exercise is separate from a move to disarm 100,000 militiamen throughout Afghanistan, which is taking place under the supervision of the United Nations and is expected to take as long as four years to complete.
Some military observers are skeptical, saying the warlords will not so readily give up their modern arsenals.
"Some of these tanks date back to the 1960s," one observer said. "Where are you going to find spare parts for them? It was easier and less expensive to give them up."
Still, Kabul's residents rejoiced at the news of the hand-over.
In Khair Khana, on the outskirts of the capital, near a private military base where many of the weapons were kept, homeowners urged the government to go further and take action against the local militiamen. Rasul, 30, said many of them were responsible for looting homes at night.
"On my street after the Taliban fell, the Northern Alliance soldiers knocked on our doors and said, 'Give me your car or 20,000 rupees [$465] or I will tell everyone you are Al Qaeda,' " said Rasul. (Many Afghans use only one name.) "Now the Pushtun money exchangers in my neighborhood can't come to the mosque at night because they will be kidnapped and held for ransom. The poor people can pray at night but the rich can't."
Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, the deputy defense minister, blamed the high crime rate on soldiers who have had little or nothing to do since the collapse of the Taliban regime.
"In any army, if you leave them idle, they will create problems," he said. "Usually they are given a 24-hour schedule to keep them busy."
He said the collection of heavy weaponry had been delayed by months because of a lack of infrastructure to move and store the equipment.
The security vacuum left by the disarmament of the militias and the collection of the heavy arms is expected to be filled by the fledgling Afghan army. But the poor pay, and corruption, has resulted in high desertion rates. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 soldiers have left the army, though Wardak disputed the figure.
Earlier in the week, he warned potential defectors that the central government would make them return their wages if they left.
"Some of the moujahedeen feel they can come and go as they please," he said. "It is against the rules of every army in the world to desert.
"I want to send a message that this country will be a law-abiding nation."