President Hamid Karzai’s Kabul government – strongly backed by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad – is struggling to smooth the road to successful general elections this September. There appears to be two obstacles. One is whittling the power of warlords so that they cannot influence the elections to their advantage. The other is protection of government election workers who are out in the countryside to register prospective voters. Most observers familiar with the political situation in Afghanistan today think that the disarming of the warlords is the more formidable task because they are nominally allied with the Kabul government. On the other hand, the protection of election workers is primarily focused on preventing attacks by pro-Taliban elements, al-Qaeda sympathizers and followers of such anti-government former mujahidin leaders as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (see EDM, May 25).
The Kabul government’s goal is to disarm 60 percent of an estimated 100,000 militiamen allied to the warlords ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in September. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly emphasized that disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of these militiamen is the most important political process in Afghanistan. Under the UN-backed Afghan New Beginnings Program, the warlords must provide the Ministry of Defense with lists of soldiers to be demobilized from their units. UN teams verify the lists, and after a militiaman surrenders his weapons, he is offered a lump sum payment, and vocational training for a job. So far, a pilot program that began last November has resulted in the demobilization of about 6,000 militiamen.
However, last week’s renewed effort at demobilization resulted in the disarmament of fewer than 200 militiamen and the surrender of only 60 rockets. (PakTribune.com, Kabul, May 25). But according to U.S. Embassy statements from Kabul on May 21, three top warlords — General Atta Mohammad and General Mohammad Daoud from the northern provinces, and Ismail Khan, governor of Herat – have agreed to cooperate. Peter Babbington, who heads the Afghan New Beginnings Program, said that the warlords are afraid of losing thousands of dollars in wages that are paid by the Ministry of Defense to “ghost” militiamen. According to Babbington, these warlords have enjoyed customs revenues garnered from goods transiting through their territories. Babbington added that in the past they have benefited from “financial windfalls” from the U.S.-led military coalition during the early stages of the war to oust the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.
The most troubling aspect of the DDR process is that Defense Minister Field Marshall Mohammad Fahim maintains his own militia inside Kabul, and he himself is not willing to disarm them. In a hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee a week ago, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said, “Until the bulk of the militias are decommissioned, there is a grave risk that the coming elections will be determined by those who control the guns.” However, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in Kabul that a more “realistic” target of militiamen that needed to be disarmed is closer to 50,000 rather than the official UN estimate of 100,000. Khalilzad said that the warlords could be offered places for their militiamen in a new “provincial” government force that could initially number 5,000 men. (PakTribune.com, Kabul, May 23).
In the meantime, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on May 22 that Germany is leading efforts to rebuild the Afghan police force. A police-training program in a new police academy is expected to turn out 20,000 policemen by June, which was the original date for the elections. Jalali said that another 3,000-4,000 policemen will be trained by September to help police the elections. Visiting German Interior Minister Otto Schily presented Jalali with dozens of police vehicles, including pickup trucks for a new highway patrol, as well as fleet of motorbikes.
On the other hand, opponents of the Kabul government’s demobilization program have suggested that the arms collection process is a failure because the warlords have become wary of President Karzai. They cite his invitation to “moderate” Taliban and dissident members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hisb-e Islami (see EDM, May 7) to take part in the elections (Kabul Weekly, in Dari, May 19). The warlords are from minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups, while Karzai, Hekmatyar and the Taliban are Pashtuns, the historically dominant ethnic group.