Tue, Oct 19, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Afghans refuse to let go of their trusted objects of insurance, despite UN pleas

AWASH IN ARMS There are an estimated 1 million to 3 million weapons in the country -- and few Afghans are willing to give them up in a UN disarmament program


A group of heavily-armed Afghans yesterday guard the border with Pakistan.


Most people in Kareza, a dusty village two hours north of Kabul, keep animals tethered outside their mud-walled houses. Commander Mafouz keeps two Soviet tanks. The 21-year-old fighter has grown fond of the two green hulks, which still have live shells in their barrels; so fond that he recently threatened to kill the UN team that tried to tow them away.

"My brother died after capturing these tanks from the Taliban. My father died fighting the Soviets," he said on Sunday, standing defiantly before the T-55 and T-62 nestled under a line of berry trees before his front door.

"I'm not going to give them up just like that," he said.

Afghanistan's remarkably peaceful election, in which vote counting is continuing, spelled "the end of the rule of the gun," declared the US commander Lieutenant General David Barno last week.

His prediction may be a little premature. The Taliban threat may have subsided but, after a quarter-century of Soviet, American and Pakistani-fuelled wars, Afghanistan is awash with an exotic array of weaponry. Just how much, nobody knows, but estimates run from 1 million to 3 million weapons.

"You could start world war three with the amount of ammunition in some places," said Peter Babbington, a retired Royal Marine heading the UN-led demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program.

The 16-month DDR drive has made slow progress. Officials have impounded 70 percent of heavy weapons -- which include tanks, rockets, bombs and terrorist-favored shoulder-to-air missiles. But only about 21,000 of the estimated 60,000 militia fighters have retired their battered AK-47s.

Afghanistan's many warlords, who are agnostics in the campaign to convert them to democracy, are mostly at fault. Efforts by President Hamid Karzai's interim government to lure the renamed "regional leaders" into politics have only partly succeeded.

The Uzbek hardman Rashid Dostum, who is accused of war crimes, contested the presidential election. But many others have remained quietly on the sidelines, some running growing drug empires from the bumper opium crop.

The demobilization officers also have to convince their footsoldiers to give up the gun, no easy feat when an entire generation has known only war. The option of joining the fledgling Afghan national army, with its US$70 monthly salary, seems unattractive to some.

As Mafouz stood guard by his tanks, about 200 of his comrades were trudging into the local barracks to demobilize, surrendering battered rifles and old artillery pieces to UN officials.

The 21-year-old fighter, who has eight years' military experience but no schooling, might join them, he hinted with a coy smile -- but only if the UN offered him a new Toyota 4x4 and a briefcase of cash.

A wider problem may be changing attitudes. A long history of bloodshed has embedded a gun culture in many rural areas. Today there is a light police presence, a farcical judicial system, and every Afghan man retains the right to carry his own weapon. Most still do.

"In this country your home insurance policy is an AK-47 over the fireplace," Babbington said. "And if it was taken from Russians, there's no getting it back."

Memories of Afghanistan's many flip-flops between war and peace have caused some to hide their weapons, no matter how big.

In Jalalabad, DDR officials dug five Soviet tanks out of field. In Badakhshan, a community so revered a tank that they built a house around it. But nowhere is the gun culture stronger than in the Panjshir Valley.

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