Report 65 / Asia

Disarmament and Reintegration in Afghanistan

The domination of Afghanistan’s political landscape by armed parties and individual commanders is still the principal obstacle to implementation of the political process that was agreed at the Bonn conference in late 2001.

Executive Summary

The domination of Afghanistan’s political landscape by armed parties and individual commanders is still the principal obstacle to implementation of the political process that was agreed at the Bonn conference in late 2001. Without a credible process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former commanders and fighters into society (DR), it is inconceivable that any of the key elements of that political process – including the adoption of a new constitution, judicial reform, and elections – can be meaningfully implemented. More international engagement across the country – in the form of both security contributions and economic assistance – remains the essential ingredient.

In late October 2003, the United Nations plans to initiate the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program (ANBP), a U.S.$41 million DR fund, with a pilot project that will target 1,000 soldiers in the northeastern town of Kunduz. This will be followed by similar pilot projects in Gardez and Bamiyan and then rolled out on a larger scale over the rest of the country, with priority to the faction-ridden city of Mazar-i Sharif in the north and Parwan province, which is home to many of the troops now stationed in Kabul. The process is intended to remove the support structure beneath senior commanders by disengaging lower-level commanders and troops through individualised counselling, vocational training, and jobs creation and placement.  

The ANBP, however, has been negotiated in the absence of either an international or a non-factional Afghan force that can project its authority throughout the country. As a result, the ministry of defence – still dominated despite recent reforms by Tajik commanders from the Panjshir Valley – has emerged as a key player in the DR process. Teams of 70 officers and soldiers assigned and trained by the ministry will be responsible for compiling data on the militia units and personnel in each district to be covered by the DR program. Regional Verification Committees (RVCs), consisting of five independent individuals for each region, plus two additional individuals from each province, will then review that data.

While the ANBP is based on a sound understanding of Afghan militia structures, the heavy ministerial footprint on the process creates a high risk of co-option. The spontaneous demobilisation of many former combatants that has already taken place as a result of low and irregular pay means that relatively few troops who retain links to commanders are likely to be found at the bases of the Afghan Military Forces (AMF). The task of identifying militia personnel, particularly the low-level commanders who are the key agents of troop mobilisation, requires independent data collection at the village level – a task for which UN or ANBP staff would be better suited. Without a more robust verification mechanism than the RVCs to cross-check the data, especially where UN profiling is unavailable, there is a serious risk that the process will be misused by powerful figures either to strengthen patronage networks or to demobilise only their opponents.

Recent attempts at disarmament and security sector reform in Afghanistan offer valuable lessons for implementation of the ANBP. In the north, since May 2002, the inter-party Security Commission has mediated factional disputes at a local level and carried out regional disarmament agreements. The failure to address larger factional rivalries in the region, however, has limited its effectiveness. In the northeast, arms collection under the authority of the ministry of defence has put significant quantities of light and heavy weapons into provincial and district depots, but the growing estrangement of local Uzbek commanders from the Panjshiri Tajik-dominated Shura-yi Nazar has reduced the prospect of their being transferred to a central authority.

In the southeastern provinces of Khost and Paktia, by contrast, the presence of the U.S., British and French-trained Afghan National Army (ANA) as well as Coalition troops has allowed some meaningful security sector reforms to take place, both by exerting pressure on recalcitrant commanders to leave office when directed to by the Kabul government and by helping fill the security vacuum while new provincial security institutions are assembled. Equally meaningful has been the appointment, by the central government and centrally-appointed governors, of professional officers to take over the provincial police and military divisions. However, circumstances and context must be carefully examined in order to assess the real significance of personnel changes.

In Kandahar, for example, the reassignment of the provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, has improved somewhat the prospects for an overhaul of the security sector but rather than creating non-tribal governance and security institutions, the measures that have been taken are likely simply to shift the balance of power between the two major Kandahari tribes. Moreover, troops that should be covered by the DR process, notably Gul Agha’s Nazmi Khas (“Special Order”) force, may be excluded.

The experience of Paktia and Khost indicates that having a credible deterrent to non-compliance and a means of ensuring that Karzai administration directives are enforced are important for DR prospects. However, training of the ANA and of the national police has proceeded at a pace that is unlikely to allow either to play a major role in nation-wide DR in the near future. Moreover, the predominance of Tajiks in its ranks will limit the ANA’s potential for long-term deployment in many non-Tajik areas. An expanded international security presence now that NATO has taken over the ISAF function will, therefore, be essential for successful DR.

There is also an important economic prerequisite. The international community needs to support the DR process by creating sustainable employment opportunities for demobilising troops. This should be part of a larger development strategy for the different regions, targeting in particular the rehabilitation of industrial facilities and the revival of long-dormant agricultural projects such as cotton production in Kunduz and forestry in Khost. With careful planning and focused investment, structured environments can be created that minimise the risk of recidivism among former combatants and provide viable alternatives to poppy cultivation.

Kabul/Brussels, 30 September 2003

Event Recording / Asia

Afghanistan: What needs to happen now? (Online Event, 2nd November 2021)

This virtual event on Afghanistan explores what the future looks like for Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

During this session, moderated by Crisis Group’s Interim President Richard Atwood, Crisis Group’s Trustee Saad Mohseni, Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and Independent Consultant Rahmatullah Amiri discuss what can be expected from the Taliban in the coming months as they try to consolidate their power, how other governments' relations with the Taliban might evolve and what can be done to address Afghanistan's worsening humanitarian crisis.

Afghanistan: What needs to happen now?