Fri, May 12, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Aid program's end has Afghans worried

DISARMAMENT Poverty could force former fighters who need extra income to rejoin the war lords or criminal gangs who still control large portions of the country


Mohammed Gul, 26, tosses bread at his bakery in Herat, Afghanistan, last Saturday. Gul, who fought for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif before the regime's ouster, now struggles to get by on the US$700 given him under the program last year to open his bakery after laying down his guns.


Mohammed Gul went from fighting the Taliban to making flat Afghan bread after joining a UN-funded disarmament project following the hardline regime's collapse.

But with the program ending next month, foreign aid workers fear that ex-combatants like Gul may be forced to return to violence to make ends meet, compounding impoverished Afghanistan's security woes.

Gul, an ethnic Tajik, fought for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif before the regime's ouster.

He now struggles to get by on the US$700 given him under the program last year to open his bakery after laying down his guns.

"If help stops altogether, it is very possible that former mujahidin will pick up their weapons and become criminals or worse because they don't have enough money," 26-year-old Gul said outside his mud brick bakery in Herat, an ancient city about 700km west of the capital, Kabul.

Disarming and rehabilitating the thousands of mujahidin and militants is vital to improving security and order in war-wracked Afghanistan, where armed groups and warlords hold sway over vast tracts of land in the landlocked Central Asian nation.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been running the reintegration component of the project, which ends next month. The project is part of a three-year scheme -- the Afghan New Beginnings Program -- funded by the UN Development Program (UNDP).

Some 50,000 former combatants have gone through the program, in which they receive education, business planning assistance, micro-credit financing and grants to start businesses and learn skills for laying down their weapons and demobilizing.

But IOM official Tajma Kurt described as "disastrous" plans to "abruptly" end the more than US$100 million program without providing further aid to former fighters, some of whom could be forced to rejoin war lords or criminal gangs to make extra money.

"There has been no exit strategy thought out to ensure sustainability for the former combatants when the project ends," Kurt said during a recent visit to Herat.

"The biggest fear will be security for the international community if they do go back to carrying arms," he said.

Another 150,000 former combatants haven't joined the program, which is directed at armed men who had belonged either to anti-Taliban groups or the former Afghan army. A separate reconciliation process aims at peacefully reintegrating Taliban militants into the community.

The IOM has also been trying to school and find work for former child soldiers who were forced to join anti-Taliban groups or the Afghan army as armed guards, cleaners or errands-runners to earn money for their families.

Amid soaring unemployment of at least 40 percent and increasing Taliban-led attacks against US-led and Afghan forces, violent crime is on the rise in Afghanistan.

There have been several armed robberies in Kabul this year resulting in the killings of the victims.

In normally peaceful Herat, police officials said locals rejected a large sum of money from a "foreigner" to help kidnap a Westerner, ideally an American, and spirit them into a bordering country, apparently Iran.

UNDP spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said the terms of the three-year disarmament and reintegration project have been met, but the world body remained concerned about the future of the ex-militants.

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