Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Karzai Taps Tribal Fighters as Police ; Western Backers See the Plan as a Setback for Afghan Disarmament

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Karzai Taps Tribal Fighters as Police ; Western Backers See the Plan as a Setback for Afghan Disarmament

Article excerpt

Facing a growing insurgency that has left more than 500 people dead over the past month, the Afghan government announced Sunday a controversial plan to rearm tribesmen in volatile southern regions.

Taliban forces have regrouped with greater strength than in previous "spring offensives," the seasonal upticks in fighting that come with melting snows.In response, Kabul plans to bolster security forces with local tribal militiamen who will don police uniforms.

But the effort alarms diplomats and Afghan legislators. They see a turn toward paramilitaries as a setback to government efforts to regain a monopoly on the use of force through disarming warlords, training a new army, and professionalizing the police. Regional leaders, observers fear, will get the message that Kabul cannot provide security and they should fall back on their own private armies.

"It is very dangerous. Re-empowering militias is a double-edged sword," says Hamidullah Tarzi, an analyst who has advised successive Afghan governments since the 1970s.

For Afghans in the south, the plan evokes painful memories of the civil war years when the government recruited militias to fight the mujahideen (holy warriors), and failed. After the Soviet withdrawal, feuding militias brought violence and mayhem to southern Afghanistan, aiding the rise of the Taliban movement that promised to restore order.

"It didn't work [during the civil war] and it won't work now. Rearming the militias will create a group of thieves and looters," says Habibullah Jan, a disarmed militia commander and member of Parliament for southern Kandahar.

Millions spent on disarmament

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, more than $150 million has been spent on cajoling warlords - particularly in the Afghan north and west - into laying down some of their weapons and allowing their men to join a revamped national army.

The process is still ongoing. Afghanistan made a commitment in January to disarm all illegal militias by the end of next year. Rearming private armies in the south flies in the face of that pledge and would encourage militia commanders to take up their guns again, analysts say.

"Commanders in the north, the northeast, and west are getting very nervous about the mention of rearming militias in the south," says Peter Babbington, head of the United Nations-backed Afghan New Beginnings Program that heads the disarmament drive.

The government, however, argues that the real concern is the current security vacuum in many parts of the south.

"This is not rearming militias. We would like to strengthen the police presence in districts in the south where there has been a rise in terrorism," says Jawed Ludin, the chief of staff for President Hamid Karzai. "It is not so much that terrorists are strong but that we are weak. In some districts bordering Pakistan which are prone to infiltration, we have 40 police to protect 200,000 people. …

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