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Afghanistan: Kabul Raises Concerns With Plan To Use Militia Fighters As Police

By Ron Synovitz

Efforts by the Afghan government to recruit militia fighters as security along the Afghan-Pakistan border have raised concerns about reforms in the country. President Hamid Karzai's government says it does not want to bring entire militia groups into Afghanistan's security services. But experts remain skeptical, saying any move to arm or pay militia fighters in southern Afghanistan as police is a dangerous step that could set back years of work to disarm warlords and their fighters.

PRAGUE, June 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Karzai has been visiting Pashtun tribal leaders close to the border with Pakistan this week in an attempt to recruit individual fighters to the Afghan National Police.

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak tells RFE/RL that Kabul is not trying to undermine internationally backed programs aimed at disarming and demobilizing warlord militias. Wardak also says Kabul does not want to empower illegal militia groups.

"In some districts where there are few police -- [border areas near Pakistan] where there is conflict and security is weak -- we want to increase the number of police," Wardak says. "Across Afghanistan, our national police force comprises local police officers. We plan to fill these gaps within the national police force by recruiting more local people. Step by step, we will train them and make them part of the Afghan National Police."

...Two Steps Back?

Abdul Manan Farahi, the Afghan Interior Ministry's counterterrorism chief, says Kabul will not provide weapons to militias that already have been armed for generations. Instead, Farahi says the government will pay militia fighters who register their weapons and help with security.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban," remains skeptical. Despite the declarations from Kabul about its plans, Rashid says it is a bad idea to use militia fighters to provide security in southern Afghanistan.

"It's a complete reversal of everything that the Afghan government and the international community have been trying to do in the last five years," Rashid says. "Hundreds of million of dollars have been spent in disarming militias and disarming the warlords. If Karzai now plans to arm any kind of Pashtun militias in the south, you will get an immediate demand from ethnic groups in the north -- Uzbeks and particularly the Tajiks -- to do the same in the north. And then we are back to having warlord militias."

'A Repudiation'

Rashid says he is particularly concerned about reports that hundreds of militia fighters loyal to a former provincial governor have been allowed to keep their weapons and are being paid $200 per month by the Finance Ministry in Kabul.

"Sher Mohammad Akhonzada, the former governor of Helmand, has already hired 500 fighters. Mr. Akhonzada was thrown out from the governorship of Helmand on the demand of the British government before [British troops] went down into Helmand because of his involvement with the drugs, because of his involvement with the Taliban, and [because of] his very unsavory reputation," Rashid says. "Now if a man like that is going to [remain] armed, it is going to lead to a very negative reaction by NATO, by the European Union, by the United Nations, by everyone trying to carry out a reform agenda. This is a repudiation of the whole reform agenda."

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says he also is concerned by the bolstering of border security with Afghan militia fighters. He predicts the plan will empower existing militias and could lead to the creation of new tribal militias.

"[Karzai's] government has said these are controlled militias. You hear statements from some members of his administration that they are armed anyway and have been armed for thousands of years," Tarzi says. "[The Afghan government says,] 'All we are doing is actually bringing them under government control.' In my view, this is a very disturbing situation. To create more militias -- while the Japanese and the UN and the United States are paying money to disarm militias -- is very shortsighted and very ad hoc (eds: improvised without regard for wider implications). Instead of helping the state become more powerful, it is actually undermining the state's authority."

Mark Laity, NATO's spokesman in Kabul, says it is inappropriate for Kabul to use irregular armed forces as a police force. He says NATO is committed to the goal of disarming all illegal armed groups in the country by the end of next year. But he admits that effective implementation of the disarmament program depends on local situations.

Response To U.S. Move?

Journalist Rashid concludes that Kabul has been pushed toward the idea of recruiting militia fighters since Washington announced it would reduce aid for the Afghan National Army.

"What has been so depressing has been [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's announcement several months ago that the Americans would not pay salaries for the Afghan National Army, that they would slow down recruitment and training for the army, and that they would reduce the size of the army from 75,000 men to 50,000 men," Rashid says. "I think the Americans need to immediately rescind this. And if they don't, then some other countries -- perhaps NATO, perhaps the European Union -- need to fill the gap and promise the Afghans that they will speed up the building of the Afghan National Army and go back to the original figure of 75,000 men."

A tribal militia already is working as a security force in the eastern province of Kunar -- a mountainous border region near Pakistan where U.S.-led coalition forces have been battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Zahidullah Zahid, a spokesman for Kunar's governor, says the tribal people know the territory far better than police and army troops who are sent in from other parts of the country. Zahid says the Kunar militia fighters own their own guns -- mostly AK-47 assault rifles. He says they are being paid about $80 a month by the Afghan Interior Ministry.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalazai contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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