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Articles & Op-eds

The Guns of Kabul
Ambassador Said T. Jawad
The New York Times

Just over a year ago at the conference in Bonn on organizing a post- Taliban government, the factions of Afghanistan pledged "to withdraw all military units from Kabul." A glance around this city, especially at night, reveals the emptiness of those words. Clumps of armed Afghans in olive fatigues loom up out of the darkness. Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, they search, harass, shake down or wave on, at whim.

My country is at peace. And yet Kabul, once a vibrant and sophisticated capital, is like an armed camp. It is time to demilitarize our major cities.

For Afghans, who have seen horrors beyond human imagination committed at the point of a gun, the unjustified armed presence here and in the provinces is a terrifying sight. In Kabul but also in the provinces, where the rule of gun should have been mitigated by the presence of the International Security Assistance Forces, the sight of the armed men is enough to deter most Afghans from participating in rebuilding their country, even as we move toward national elections in 2004 as called for in the Bonn agreement.

These armed groups can turn Afghanistan once again into a dangerous and explosive place, a menace to Afghans and the international community. For the truth is this: Afghans are a moderate people. But the violence of the militias opens the door - as it did in 1992 - to fundamentalism and dictatorship by pushing a desperate population to seek refuge in groups like the Taliban.

Afghans are acutely aware of this danger. In my work with President Hamid Karzai, I am constantly approached by Afghans who are concerned about the persistent presence of the militias. "My constituents didn't ask me for schools or clinics," said one delegate to last summer's loya jirga, the grand council that selected the president. "They wanted the weapons collected. They wanted the warlords disarmed."

To fulfill this wish, President Karzai last month unveiled a comprehensive disarmament, demilitarization, and reintegration program, including job training and incentives for men-at-arms to return to civilian life. But Afghans cannot do this alone. We need the strong backing and unequivocal support of the United States and other members of the international community to bring about the withdrawal of the armed groups from our cities that was solemnly pledged in Bonn.

Kabul should receive immediate attention, for it is a special case. Provincial visitors and dignitaries in their distinct local dress are subject to humiliation and browbeating from armed men. They conclude that Kabul, the capital, is not really theirs. They return home with their faith in the unparalleled Afghan experiment in nation-building eroded.

But the problem holds in the provinces as well. In many places, regional commanders who have usurped the trappings of legitimacy hold the population hostage. The Afghans have repudiated them, but their gunmen impose silence, while they violate human rights and expand their hold on power and the economy in their regions. Until these men are disarmed, the Afghan people cannot invest themselves in the future of their country.

The international community needs to help us to move militias out of urban centers to barracks and confine them there, and to put into effect President Karzai's disarmament, demilitarization and reintegration program, which includes recruiting a limited number of irregular fighters into the national army and channeling the rest toward productive employment.

We can maintain order in the cities by means of a national police force working closely with the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul and the newly formed Provincial Reconstruction Teams elsewhere. The United States should expand the mandate of these teams to include some temporary role in law enforcement.

The United States, the United Nations and leading international groups have built up an impressive track record in the disarmament and demobilization of local militias in other countries. In Kosovo, a carefully developed if imperfectly run program led to the surrender of tens of thousands of weapons, the demobilization of the bulk of the Kosovo Liberation Army resistance fighters, and the transformation of the rest into a civil defense force that could at least be monitored. Meanwhile, an international police force maintained order and helped train graduates of the Kosovo police academy.

We want the international determination that drove the Kosovo disarmament process to focus now on Afghanistan. With the international community's assistance, we can ensure peace and prosperity in our country.

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