Afghanistan: Where the gun still rules

News and Press Release
Originally published
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
KABUL, 7 June (IRIN) - Abdullah Shah, 25, busily sews clothes in his small tailor's shop in Obdarra, a village in Anaba district in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, some 120 km north of the capital, Kabul. He has been the sole breadwinner in his family since his brother, Shafiqullah, was gunned down by a powerful warlord in late 2003. A slaying typical of an environment where local strong men still hold sway over local communities and often deliver ruthless punishment to those that displease them.
"The enemy made tens of holes in the chest of my beloved brother Shafiqullah, just close to the door of our house," Shah said. His brother's murderer was never brought to justice. "The government has failed to bring the killer to court because he's a wealthy man with his own militia," he said.

Panjshir was one of the most militarised parts of the country during the Soviet occupation and the bloody internecine civil war that followed their withdrawal in 1989. Today, the roads remain littered with the rusting hulls of Soviet tanks and other obsolete weapons. Despite countrywide disarmament efforts by the government and the international community, many former gunmen armed with AK-47s still move about freely in the valley, a stark reminder that disarmament has not been fully achieved and that the rule of law has yet to replace the rule of the gun.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans died in almost three decades of civil war from 1979, up to and during the rule of the Taliban between 1995 and 2001 when the US and coalition forces with the Northern Alliance (NA), drove them out. Although the large numbers of deaths associated with the nation's various internal conflicts are now a thing of the past, illegal killings continue today.

Afghanistan's mountainous terrain and poor infrastructure mean many remote areas of the country are totally outside the government's control. In addition, the country's police and military remain weak and are largely unable to offer security to civilians outside a few major towns.

"Many people feel obliged to keep guns for their personal safety because of a lack of security", said Abdul Hamid Mubarez, former deputy minister of information and culture.

Afghanistan has long had a reputation through its history of being an ungovernable land of warring tribes where local power struggles and customary or traditional law was maintained by village courts and the use of guns. There is little evidence that the present conditions are very different. Even before the Soviet invasion in 1979, people kept guns in their homes to protect themselves against clan and tribal disputes, as well as general banditry, and to help the government maintain stability.

Following the invasion and the subsequent ten years of brutal conflict, however, the number of arms held among the general population rose because of the many thousands of small and heavy weapons that had entered the country during the fighting. As a result, a substantial number of local, powerful commanders with hundreds of militia members, came into being to fight the communist government and the Soviet super-power military machine as it escalated its presence in the country They were lavishly supported overtly and covertly by the US and other western powers during what was still the Cold War period.

"Hundreds of illegal armed groups affiliated to various tribal, ethnic and political parties with separate military organisations stored huge amounts of weapons," Mubarez said, impeding the government's efforts to establish national security.

Local analyst Habibullah Rafi said the culture of bearing arms in Afghanistan is related to the country's history and geographic location. Afghanistan was strategically situated along the so-called Silk Road, which linked Asia to Europe and had been constantly attacked over the centuries. "The history of conflict, combined with weak governments and strong local loyalties, has led to a culture where guns are perceived to be as necessary as a cooking pot or a mule," he explained.

There are currently at least 100,000 illegal weapons in Afghanistan, facilitating conflict and undermining the fragile democracy, according to Ahmad Jan Nawzadi, a public information officer for the United Nations-backed national demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programme. "The government's patience is about to come to an end," he warned. "Those still holding weapons in their houses should know that their arms will definitely be collected."

"Guns are the root cause of all miseries in the country," said 55-year-old Ali-Mardan, an elder in one village in Panjshir. He believes people should show good faith and give up their guns now that the country had a central government.

Despite government efforts for countrywide disarmament and stronger security forces, people are still reluctant to hand over their weapons. Mohammad Hashim, 27, who lives in Charikar, the capital of the northern Parwan Province, around 50 km north of Kabul, said people did not trust the government's current security forces. "People are maintaining their security by themselves," he said.

Northern Alliance (NA) forces formed huge military compounds in the Panjshir Valley during the war against the Taliban. Since the ouster of the Taliban government in late 2001, the DDR process in Parwan and Panjshir provinces has led to the collection of more than 7,100 heavy weapons and small arms. Despite this success, however, small arms are still widespread in the valley.

"It's a sad reality that the majority of people are holding small arms in their houses. It needs strong government intervention to change this," said Abdurrahman, a 23-year-old ex-combatant living in the Bazarak area of Panjshir. He was only 15 when he took up a weapon. "The gun has destroyed my life. It made me illiterate - with war there was no school, nothing but fighting, " he said. Abdurrahman admitted he was still holding two AK-47 rifles at his house, but "only to protect myself from the possible threat of warlords".

Vikram Bhatia, a protection officer with the DDR programme, warned that one way or another, people would surrender their weapons. "If the local commanders and those holding illegal weapons do not surrender their arms voluntarily, there will be a forced disarmament, in which government, coalition and NATO-led peacekeeping forces would collect their weapons," he said.

Officials of the Disarmament and Reintegration Commission (DRC) estimated in late 2005 that there were still between 1,800 and 2,000 illegal armed groups threatening stability across Afghanistan. The long, porous borders and poor law enforcement make the acquisition of new weapons easy, much of which is bankrolled by the country's burgeoning opium trade.

"Only strict laws banning unauthorised holding of weapons and border controls can prevent small arms proliferation in Afghanistan," Bhatia said. Opium production has soared since 2001 and the ouster of the Taliban. The 2006 crop is estimated to be the highest yet and with this growth of the illegal drug comes ever-more criminality and use of small arms to maintain and control the trade, UNODC has said.

According to local analyst Qasim Akhgar, small arms are a much more significant threat to the country's stability than heavy weapons, the majority of which have been collected or decommissioned. "To ensure long-term success, only a big national project for both counter-narcotics and disarmament should take place. These will only succeed if people benefit from them - like provision of alternative livelihoods," he said, adding that solving the problem of small arms would require addressing the problems of poverty and unemployment as well.

Akhgar believed a substantial number of commanders who had joined the DDR process, which was launched on 24 October 2003, had actually surrendered only a small number of non-operational weapons. "Local warlords are still holding stocks of small and heavy weapons in their houses," he said.

However, Masoum Stanekzai, a government minister and deputy head of the disarmament commission, said significant progress had been made in disarming militias. "Generally, it is not true that a considerable number of commanders have only surrendered their non-operational weapons, because our officials have been overseeing the process regularly," he said. "We have received an official document from each of the commanders that they would surrender their arms. If they violate their commitment, the government would definitely use force to disarm them."

In 2003, as part of the effort to reform the security sector in Afghanistan, the government launched Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), a donor-funded programme of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Mowlana Abdul Rahman Saidkhel, police chief of the northern Parwan province and a former militia commander, voluntarily surrendered 119 weapons, including six heavy weapons, to the ANBP collection teams.

According to local analyst Qasim Akhgar, small arms are much more significant threat to the country's stability than heavy weapons. More than 60,000 former combatants had been disarmed and reintegrated under the DDR initiative, which took the international community almost 20 months and more than US $150 million to complete. In addition to decommissioning ex-combatants, approximately 24,300 light and medium weapons and 12,200 heavy weapons were collected across the country.

While trying to deal with the disarmament of Afghan private and localised militias, the Afghan government and the UN are now focusing on the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) initiative, which was officially launched on 11 June 2005 and designed to collect arms from individuals and groups that hold arms illegally. Financed by the Japanese government, DIAG is run by the interior and defence ministries and the national security agency and overseen by the UN. According to the disarmament commission, that more than 20,000 arms have been collected since the programme began.

The hope is that only those with permits issued by the interior ministry would be allowed to bear arms. "Government takes the issue of keeping illegal arms seriously. The process of issuing arm permits has just started," Stanekzai said, adding they have already issued permits to allow some people to carry firearms.

For the present, however, with the country-wide proliferation of opium production, armed factions infiltrating the country from Pakistan and the inability of the fledgling government to achieve the rule of law, the vision of a gun-free Afghanistan remains as elusive as ever.