Afghan demobilisation masks continued militia resistance

Internationally endorsed and funded demobilisation processes are a relatively new development, coming to prominence in the last decade or so. By 2000, the UN was fully accepting demobilisation as "vital to stabilizing a post-conflict situation".1 This enthusiasm for demobilisation led to the inclusion of such a process in the Bonn agreement, which formed the basis of the Afghan peace process and state rebuilding.

The so-called Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, which is run by the Afghan New Beginnings Programme (ANBP) under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, faced difficulties from the beginning. Its start was delayed several times, until it finally began in October 2003 with a pilot project in a limited number of provinces.2 Since then, the DDR has been run into a number of hurdles, not least the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Afghan Ministry of Defence, until some key players (the US government among them) lost patience and pushed for a rapid acceleration of the process starting from the autumn of 2004.

By June 2005, it is expected that the demobilisation part of the DDR programme in Afghanistan should be completed. By mid-March, more than 43,000 out of about 50,000 militiamen (AMF or Afghan Militia Forces) had already been officially demobilised.3 The completion of the demobilisation by June faces a major hurdle, however, as a large group of militiamen, known as the 'Panjshiris', resists demobilisation in Kabul and Panjshir. The ANBP, the UN body that is managing the DDR programme, is threatening the resisting militias with the withdrawal of benefits available to the demobilised soldiers - a food package and reintegration programme.

There are a number of reasons why the Panjshiris are resisting demobilisation. One is that following their occupation of Kabul at the end of 2001, their leaders proceeded to capture state structures, hiring thousands of their followers from Panjshir into a number of ministries, particularly those pertaining to interior and defence. As a result, working in the security establishment in Kabul is today by far the main source of employment in Panjshir. Demobilisation means that these jobs will be lost and they will not be easy to replace. On the other hand, the Afghan government has made clear that if the militias do not accept demobilisation, they will be excluded from the ranks of the Ministry of Defence in any case and no more money will be paid to them.

There is however at least another, eminently political, major reason for the refusal of the Panjshiris to demobilise. The new cabinet formed by President Hamed Karzai in December 2004 saw the exclusion of major Panjshiri players such as Mohammad Fahim and Yunus Qanuni, previously ministers of defence and education respectively. Dragging their feet on demobilisation is another way to put pressure on the government to protest at the downsizing of the Panjshiri component in the government, at present limited to Abdullah Abdullah, minister of foreign affairs.

A genuine demobilisation?

The main problem with demobilisation in Afghanistan, however, is not the resistance of the Panjshiris, which at worse can still be resolved by cutting them off from the Ministry of Defence (although the collection of heavy weapons in Panjshir had to be suspended in January after the sabotage of some ANBP equipment). The real issue is that in many cases Afghan militias have not genuinely been disbanded.

In some parts of the south, southeast and east of the country, where the militias were not well organised, demobilisation has often been effective. Even here, however, in several cases militias survived by going underground. In the centre, west, north and northeast, where militias were better organised, the survival of the militias as underground organisations has been almost universal, even if they have lost their official status and are no longer paid by the Ministry of Defence. In a number of examples, the old militias reincarnated themselves as police, highway police or border police. In Kandahar province, the former commander of 2nd Corps, whose unit was demobilised in 2004, was appointed chief of police towards the end of that year and he took many of his militiamen with him.4

The survival of the demobilised units of the Ministry of Defence as underground militias highlights another problem that had not been taken into account in the original planning of DDR. After the fall of the Taliban, only a relatively small proportion of the hundreds of militias existing in the country had been incorporated into the structure of the Ministry of Defence. Even those that were included in the structure often maintained an even larger number of men outside the official structure in the villages.

It is difficult to estimate how many armed militiamen existed in early 2002, but they definitely numbered hundreds of thousands. Only about 100,000 were absorbed into the Ministry of Defence payroll. A few of the militias that were left out naturally disintegrated and their commanders retired to civilian life, but the large majority continued to exist and became involved in illegal taxation, smuggling and other criminal activities as a way to raise revenue and fund themselves.

Underground militias

During 2004 the ANBP started to look into the issue of underground militias, following widespread worries that the dismantling of the AMF might create a security gap that the illegal militias might then exploit. A census was carried out, which produced a list of 850 such illegal/underground militias, with an estimated 65,000 to 80,000 members. This is a massive underestimation of the actual number of militiamen existing in the country, although it probably includes the majority of the largest militias and those engaged in large-scale criminal activities.

Even if a plan to deal with such militias is now being prepared, the task ahead appears gigantic, not least because it is unlikely that the same incentives offered to AMF units will be offered to illegal militias.

Implementation is not the only problem associated with demobilisation in Afghanistan. Reintegration turned out to be problematic. Private soldiers were supposed to be sent to training courses of their choice or be enrolled (on an individual basis) in the police or the new national army. The reintegration programme seems to have been modelled on previous experiences elsewhere, presumably in Africa, and was based on the assumption that soldiers were uprooted individuals who faced big problems in reintegrating into society. However, in Afghanistan this was not the case, not least because the DDR only targeted militias that had been incorporated into the Ministry of Defence structure. Since the ministry was not paying salaries to these troops, but only food allowances, the commanders of such militias could not effectively integrate their men into a disciplined structure and sent most of them back home. Instead, in most cases fresh recruits were called up from the villages for short one- to three-month periods to man the barracks and weapons and ammunition depots. Therefore, a large majority of Afghan militiamen were not uprooted at all, as they served in the vicinity of their villages. Also, they had already been demobilised and reintegrated in society before the official DDR programme even started.

Many of the people who were demobilised by the DDR are in fact new recruits, or in any case people who had not really fought in the war. Therefore, such demobilised soldiers have little interest in training courses that would have provided them with alternative jobs, a fact that contributed to produce a very high drop-out rate in such courses.

One additional problem of reintegration has been the role of commanders, who for the most part are not keen to graciously accept retirement and considered the incentives provided by the ANBP as insulting. Because many former commanders had been incorporated in the state structures in 2003-04, those being demobilised in 2004-05 have advanced similar demands of being given an officer post in the new national army or in the police, or even a job in the state administration.

In the meantime, the demobilised commanders, in the majority of cases, have not given up their influence and are doing their best to maintain their militias in place, even without financial support from the Ministry of Defence. They can do so because of alternative sources of revenue, all illegal ones, but also because their core structure, normally composed of a few very loyal individuals, remains in place. This structure can be used to maintain control over the militiamen, not least through intimidation, whether or not the latter are keen to retain membership in the militias.

The one achievement of the DDR in Afghanistan has been the delegitimisation of armed militias, as they no longer have an official role. Among other advantages, this means that in the future they will therefore be easier to prosecute. Even this achievement, however, is somewhat diminished by the fact that much of Afghanistan's police force is still made up of former militiamen, who often engage in the same type of abuses against the population as the AMF and the illegal militias do. Real demobilisation has yet to come to Afghanistan.


1 The role of United Nations Peacekeeping in Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, report of the Secretary General to the Security Council, February 2000, p1.

2 See Confronting Afghanistan's security dilemma, edited by M. Sedra, BICC Brief 28, Bonn, September 2003.

3 Of the around 100,000 originally integrated in the Ministry of Defence structure, about half melted away 'spontaneously', due to the cost to local commanders of maintaining such a large force.

4 See also Crisis Group, 'Afghanistan: getting disarmament back on track', Bruxelles, February 2005, pp6-7.

Dr Antonio Giustozzi is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and is running a project on Afghan warlordism

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