Disarming Afghanistan’s Warlords: Programs, Problems, Possibilities

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 70

In mid-July, Afghanistan’s interim president, Hamid Karzai, issued two statements that reflected an unprecedented toughness toward drug traffickers and warlords in the country.

Karzai summoned most of Afghanistan’s reputed warlords to Kabul to inform them that their resistance to disarmament was trying his patience. According to the Bonn agreements that authorized Karzai’s interim government, the militias and the warlords were to be disarmed by June 2004, the month originally scheduled for presidential and parliamentary elections. That did not happen.

In theory, disarmament is to be carried out in a two-pronged process. One prong is a process called DDR (Disarmament, Disengagement, and Reintegration), a $300 million program jointly financed by the United Nations and Japan. Its aim is to reintegrate former fighters into society by helping them find civilian jobs or bringing them into the Afghan National Army or police. The other prong is the Heavy Weapon Cantonment program (HWC), which is designed to collect all the heavy weapons and store them in secure sites under the control of “legitimate Afghan authorities.” The UN International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the main supporter of HWC.

The Afghan government is obligated to help in the process of registration and disarmament. The government had promised that, by the beginning of July, 40% of the armed militias would be brought under the DDR program. But this goal was not reached. Even the generally optimistic UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (AMA) representative complained, “The DDR process is delayed. It is not moving so far with the speed that is necessary” (RFE/RL, June 29).

It would be perhaps more accurate to say that the process is stalled, because by mid-July the DDR program had only registered about 12,000 armed men out of an estimated 100,000. The main reason for the lack of progress is simply that some warlords and their militias continue to resist handing in their weapons or registering under DDR. One prominent example is Afghan Defense Minister Marshal Fahim, who not only has not surrendered his own militia’s arms, but he has backed other renegade warlords who are affiliated with his party (Far Eastern Economic Review, July 29).

The warlords resist disarmament because they do not want to lose their existing clout. Although Karzai recently tried to transfer some of them from direct supervision of their militias to more civilian roles, they remain de facto in control. Karzai appointed Mohammad Atta of Army Corps Number 7 as governor of Balkh province, and Hazrat Ali and Khan Mohammad Khan of Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces, respectively, to be chiefs of police.

The other factor behind the stonewalling is the lucrative drug trade. The armed militias, including the Taliban insurgency, are funded by drug money (see EDM August 5). The militias are nurtured by the illicit drug trade, which enables them to hire more guns. Some militiamen know no other occupation because they have been carrying arm since their childhood.

Karzai, who ranked warlords and militias as being more dangerous than the Taliban insurgency, signed a five-point decree warning armed groups of serious consequences if they do not comply with the DDR program. He added that if they resisted DDR, they would be considered “disloyal and rebellious” and would be punished by utmost severity under the law (RFE/RL, July 14).

As an Afghan observer said, DDR is a pipedream. Neither NATO nor the Afghan government has the resources needed to carry it out. NATO is deployed for peacekeeping efforts in Kabul and in the northern city of Kunduz. Other forces are busy hunting the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in southern and southeastern parts of the country. Without a forceful persuasion, few incentives for a better life, and scant job opportunities, disarming the militias seems a very difficult — if not impossible — task.

Karzai has raised these symbiotic issues ahead of the presidential elections in an effort to attract potential voters who favor clamping down on the warlords and the drug trade. However, raising the issues does not necessarily mean eliminating them. In practical terms, there is no way that Karzai’s government can stop the drug trade or disarm the militias by itself.