An enduring legacy of Afghanistan's quarter century of conflict, has been the emergence of power structures based on the personal authority of commanders, backed by illegal armed groups. These structures continue to pose a principal challenge, at the local level, to the Afghan government. Disarming these militias has become an important aspect of providing security to the people in the NATO controlled territories. President Hamid Karzai, way back in 2004, underlined the threat posed by these private militias and considered them as the greatest danger, even more than the Taliban insurgency, and called for their disarmament.
These militias pose a threat to good governance, especially towards extending the rule of law and the writ of the central government in the provinces. They continue to prowl, unencumbered by any respect for the law. They have links with the terrorists, insurgents, drug traffickers and other criminal groups. In provinces, they have control over the local population and are also responsible for killing civilians, aid workers, election officials and potential voters. Without concrete efforts to reduce their influence, it would be difficult to strengthen civil administration and the rule of law in Afghanistan.
Several initiatives were attempted to curb their dominance. Organised militias were disarmed, under the Bonn Agreement of 2001, resulting in all heavy weapons, along with significant quantities of small arms and ammunition, either brought under government control or destroyed. In 2003, Heavy Weapons Cantonment (HWC) programme was carried out to collect artillery, tanks and other heavy weapons from armed factions. Under this nationwide programme, arms belonging to armed factions were collected and stored at special government-run cantonment sites. Later in October 2004, UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, designed to help reduce the strength of the myriad armed factions, began at pilot level in Afghanistan. The first phase of DDR that targeted combatants belonging to semi-formal military units, existing outside the Afghan National Army, ended in July 2005.
The Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) is an important programme under Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP). Funded under the United Nations Development Programme by an international consortium of donors including Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands, the DIAG has three phases: The first allows the commanders to disarm voluntarily. This was accomplished in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in September 2005. Retaining links with illegal armed groups were grounds for disqualification for potential candidates. The second phase involves asking local commanders to surrender their weapons. This program depends heavily on cooperation from the law enforcement agencies because they have to help the DIAG officials locate arms caches and their owners. The subsequent DIAG scheme focused its attention instead on the irregular armed groups that surround various strongmen, who often terrorize and extort the local population based on their strength of arms.
Regrettably, many Afghans are skeptical that DIAG would succeed in disarming the population. With no remuneration, the warlords are unwilling to surrender their weapons. The DIAG program pledges to help those who are disarmed to find jobs in the private sector, but unfortunately, the Afghan economy is unable to accommodate them in large numbers.
Karzai has always tried to bring the warlords on board and explained the need for accommodation rather than confrontation. It has been alleged that warlords accused of violations and killings, occupy prominent positions in the current political establishment and even enjoy Karzai's confidence. Given the close ties between militia commanders and the government, collecting weapons is a difficult task. The official defense and police institutions also retain uncomfortably close ties with the illegal groups.
The international community also bears some responsibility for the problem as it has provided political cover to many former warlords, who turned politicians. Besides, the ongoing Taliban led insurgency is bringing more arms into Afghanistan every day and is a major obstacle to disarmament.
The Afghanistan Compact, released on 31 January 2006, stresses that the process must be government-led and backed by strong international support. The objective to complete DIAG by the end of 2007 requires strong leadership and political resolve at all levels, reinforced by stronger governance and law enforcement. It will be important to ensure that those communities that rid themselves of armed groups benefit from enhanced access to basic services and enhanced development opportunities. To maintain effective security, the Afghan police have to be properly trained and the Afghan National Army should be rid of defectors having multiple loyalties. The task, as of now, lies with the NATO, which is in control over Southern Afghanistan, to disarm the militia and extend the rule of law to these territories.