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The New York Times, October 28, 2007

Afghan Ex-Militia Leaders Hoard Illegal Arms

Afghan and Western officials say that weapons are hidden everywhere: in grain silos and closets, in mountain caves and in holes in the ground.

By Kirk Semple

KABUL - Many former militia commanders and residents in northern Afghanistan have been hoarding illegal weapons in violation of the country's disarmament laws, giving the excuse that they face a spreading Taliban insurgency from the south that government forces alone are too frail to stop, Afghan and Western officials say.

Northern Alliance fighter
"They have the power of a phone call to put hundreds, or thousands, in arms," Colonel Danielsson said.

After years of moderate success for government disarmament programs, rumors of widespread defiance in the north have arisen recently among government officials and intelligence agencies in Kabul and elsewhere. Although there is little hard evidence that commanders are greatly enlarging their arsenals, officials say, some have been thwarting government programs, refusing to disarm and possibly even remobilizing militias.

The talk of rearming underscores a deepening north-south ethnic divide that some diplomats and Afghan officials privately worry could lead the way toward a shift of power back to warlords — and toward a countrywide armed conflict — if left unchecked. And the situation poses a major challenge for President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun from the south, whose administration has failed to win the confidence of many non-Pashtun leaders and northerners.

Prices on the weapons black market in the north have skyrocketed as residents, governed by suspicion and foreboding, have kept their firearms, driving down the supply.

"There is an environment of mistrust" in the government, Brig. Gen. Abdulmanan Abed, a Defense Ministry official who works with the government's demilitarization program, said in an interview this month in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province. "There is a fear of the return of the Taliban."

A prominent political leader from the north, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it this way: "The Taliban are coming toward us. What should we do? Who will defend us? Who will protect us? This is in the minds of the people in the north."

Col. Mats Danielsson, the Swedish commander of a 450-man military unit helping to provide security in four northern provinces, said the Karzai administration and its international allies must find a way to roll back the Taliban threat and reassure northerners.

"We have to keep the window of opportunity open, but I feel that the window is closing," he said.

The Taliban insurgency is strongest in southern and eastern Afghanistan. And while it has been able to bedevil Afghan and international troops in some other regions of the country, before this year its reach rarely stretched into the northern provinces.

But government officials report an increase in Taliban activity in the north this year, particularly in the northwest. The number of Taliban attacks on Afghan and international security forces in Balkh and the other relatively peaceful provinces of north-central Afghanistan has risen from last year, the authorities say.

Residents here in Balkh Province and elsewhere in north-central Afghanistan say they are beginning to feel encircled.

"The Taliban is trying to start up its old networks here," Colonel Danielsson said in an interview in early October at his headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif. "We have to figure out how to stop this influence."

Afghan and Western officials also say that in addition to an increase in Taliban activity, there has been an escalation in crime and, in some areas, tensions among rival northern political factions. These officials say it is often difficult to determine who is to blame for specific violent acts.

The most apparent signs of rearming, officials say, are in Faryab Province, in the northwest, where commanders have organized an armed militia to fend off a growing Taliban presence in neighboring Badghis Province that has gone largely unchecked by Afghan and international security forces.

Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview in Kabul that he had received unconfirmed intelligence reports that small shipments of weapons had been smuggled across the border "from one or two countries to the north" and delivered "to receivers in some of the northern provinces." But he declined to provide further details.

Afghan government officials also say that in certain northern districts, militia commanders have evaded government weapons inspectors by breaking down their stockpiles of illegal firearms and redistributing them throughout their communities, making them harder to find.

Afghan and Western officials say that weapons are hidden everywhere: in grain silos and closets, in mountain caves and in holes in the ground.

And though the government's demobilization programs have gone some way toward dismantling many of the hundreds of illegal militias, and have removed nearly all the heavy weapons from those factions, former warlords still hold considerable sway.

"They have the power of a phone call to put hundreds, or thousands, in arms," Colonel Danielsson said. "There are a lot of weapons up here."

All the weapons in Afghanistan were supposed to be in the government's hands by now, all the private militias were to be a thing of the past.

After the Taliban fell in 2001 and fighting erupted among rival warlords, the Afghan government began the first of two disarmament and demobilization programs that were principally intended to dismantle warlords' militias and other illegal armed groups. In three decades of war, weapons had poured across the borders and authority was often established by the rule of the gun.

The programs, which are voluntary, have dismantled at least 274 paramilitary organizations, reintegrated about 62,000 militia members into civilian life and recovered more than 84,000 weapons, including thousands of heavy arms that had fallen under the control of regional warlords. Afghan and NATO forces have confiscated and destroyed many other weapons, officials said. But Afghan and international officials acknowledge that hundreds of illegal armed groups still operate in Afghanistan. And hundreds of thousands — maybe millions — of weapons remain in private hands, although they are mostly small arms rather than heavy weapons, the officials say.

Zaidullah Paiwand, the head of the Faryab branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We see here that commanders torture people, rob them and beat them. We have received many complaints against this commander [Shamal]. We have submitted all our reports to the law enforcement agencies, but unfortunately nothing significant has happened."
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Oct.18, 2007

Of the weapons that have been collected, they say, at least 40 percent were not functional.

"There is at least one weapon in each house," said General Abed, who was an officer in the anti-Taliban mujahedeen. Government officials note that the demilitarization programs were not intended to collect arms and were instead focused on disbanding armed groups.

"I think it will take many, many years" to disarm the population, said Hameed Quraishi, manager of the government's demilitarization program in the north. "It doesn't matter how hard you try. It's the level of confidence the people have in the government."

But the talk about rearming is not entirely military. It also appears to be a means of pressing the Karzai government, which many northern leaders have accused of favoring the south, a region mostly populated by members of his Pashtun ethnicity.

"We selected Karzai to unify the country," said a prominent politician from the north and former member of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban. "But people who joined him have pushed him to being a Pashtun leader, not a national leader."

Disproportionate amounts of aid money and weapons have flowed to the south to prop up the regional leadership and battle the Taliban. As part of this effort, the government has been trying to build an auxiliary police force among southern Pashtun tribes to confront the insurgency.

Many northern leaders say that they have been shortchanged in the distribution of development aid and worry about the militarization of the south as they are being asked to disarm.

"Northern commanders are saying: ‘We can't disarm. This guy is trying to unite all Pashtuns. We have to defend ourselves!' " a European diplomat said in Kabul.

General McNeill doubts some of the northern claims. "There's no question that there's a hell of a lot of political posturing in the northern sectors," he said. "Where they think they're ignored in the reconstruction process, there often is a report: ‘They're here! The Taliban! They got us surrounded!' "

In interviews, northern Afghan leaders said that in spite of their concerns about the central government, they were standing by Mr. Karzai. And most of them denied that any stockpiling of weapons was occurring.

"If we take up arms, it means the democratic process is defeated," said Sayed Mustafa Kazemi, spokesman for the National Front, a political coalition mainly composed of non-Pashtun leaders from the north. "We want this government to survive its entire term because we don't want the process to be defeated."

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