By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 177, 09-Jul-05)
With violence already on the increase a little more than two months ahead of September's parliamentary elections, the Afghan government is starting the second phase of a programme designed to collect weapons from armed groups and individuals all across the country.
But sceptics are already questioning whether the new project, dubbed Disarmament of Illegal Groups, or DIAG, will succeed in getting guns out of the hands of armed bands that continue to roam the countryside.
DIAG, unveiled last month in Kabul, is the successor to the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration programme, DDR, begun in October 2003, which sought to disarm and dissolve the large private armies maintained by regional warlords.
That United Nations-administered programme ended last month with claims that weapons were collected from 60,000 militia members. Some 40,000 of these former fighters have either become members of the new Afghan National Army or undergone training to acquire the skills they need for civilian jobs.
But even defence ministry officials concede that thousands of weapons remain around the country, often in the hands of local commanders and forces loyal to them.
Many fear the continuing presence of such a large number of armed groups in the country will serve to disrupt the upcoming election.
The country's election laws ban anyone who possesses weapons or is associated with an armed group from appearing on the ballot.
Although envisaged as a three-year programme, DIAG will initially concentrate on giving prospective candidates the chance to turn in their weapons.
Already, 180 people, the majority of them would-be parliamentary candidates, have handed in their guns, according to Mohammad Masoom Stanakzai, deputy head of the now defunct DDR programme.
Like DDR, the new scheme is being financed by the Japanese government. DIAG will be run by the interior and defence ministries and the national security agency, and overseen by the UN.
Interior ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal says the government already has the intelligence it needs to make the programme a success. "We now know how many weapons each commander has, and where they are stored," he told IWPR.
Mashal said that in the first two months of the programme, commanders and armed men will be asked to hand over their weapons voluntarily. After that, the interior ministry will begin the process of forcible disarmament.
But Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif, said that it is not yet clear whether this latest disarmament programme can succeed.
"If the government continues its policy of consulting with the local commanders, this programme will be no more successful than DDR," he said. "The commanders will be able to hide their arms again."
Ahmad Khan, an ex-commander in Samangan province, from the Junbesh-e-Islami faction formerly led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, handed over his arms to the government in early June.
"War has ended in Afghanistan, so we don't need to have weapons anymore," said Ahmad Khan.
He claimed that he maintained his militia for as long as he did only because his men needed the employment.
"The government has now established training courses for armed men who are not connected with the defence ministry, so there's no reason to retain arms," he said.
Many Afghans are hopeful that the new programme will be successful.
"There are still a lot of armed men in the villages," said Rauf, 36, a resident of Baghlan province. "There will be no peace until these men are disarmed. All the robberies and murders are carried out by these local commanders and armed men."
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.