KABUL, Jan 10 (Reuters) - The Afghan government and the United Nations are about to embark on a major new effort to disarm and demobilise unruly militia forces, officials say.
The plan, under which up 250,000 militiamen are supposed to hand in their weapons in exchange for cash, vocational training and help in finding work, will unfold in parallel with the building of a new national army.
The separate but inextricably linked projects are part of a new drive by the government of President Hamid Karzai to extend its influence over the whole country and bring a patchwork of individual fiefdoms under central control.
It will also be an acid test of the loyalty of regional commanders like Ismail Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who will be asked to disband their private armies, sending some fighters to the new national army and others to be demobilised.
Government officials told Reuters that Dostum, Ismail Khan and others had all signed up to the plan.
But diplomats privately doubt whether these regional leaders in the north and west, as well as lesser commanders in the unruly south and east, are interested in surrendering power bases to a government they do not entirely trust.
"This is an opportunity for regional commanders such as Dostum and Ismail Khan to either get on the bandwagon and sign up to a new Afghanistan -- or not," said Paul Crookshank, one of the U.N. officials coordinating the effort. "It's as simple as that."
Karzai is expected to appoint three sub-commissions to oversee the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration efforts later this month.
Regional offices will be built in eight key locations around the country, from Kandahar in the south to Kunduz in the north, Herat in the west to Jalalabad in the east.
By spring or early summer U.N. officials hope the project, funded in part by Japan, will be properly underway -- they say they will know by May if it is going to work.
It is the first coordinated effort to disarm Afghanistan's powerful militias since Karzai's government took over from the Taliban in December 2001.
In the north, there has been some "voluntary" disarmament on a very limited scale, U.N. officials say, but weapons recovered have merely been stored in warehouses controlled by the regional commanders themselves.
This time, guns will be handed over to the central authorities in Kabul. Most will be destroyed, but those in better condition will help to equip the national army, which is already struggling to find weapons as well as recruits.
In many parts of Afghanistan owning a weapon is deeply embedded in the culture. Guns not only provide food but also protection, and it would be no easier to rid Afghanistan of all its privately held guns that it would be in the United States.
"At the end of the process, we are not saying for one moment that Afghanistan is going to be a weaponless zone," Crookshank told Reuters.
Instead, only members of organised militias will qualify for the one-time cash payment when they hand in their guns, giving their thumb prints and possibly have their irises scanned in an effort to prevent them coming back again and again.
Preventing cheating will be a massive task. Whether officials will be able to stop people giving in a weapon for cash and then buying a new one the next day remains to be seen.
"It's a monumental task," acknowledged one Western diplomat, "and there is an awful lot that could go wrong."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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