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Last Updated:  Saturday, 22 February, 2003, 05:10 GMT
Afghanistan's gun culture challenge

Kylie Morris
BBC News in Afghanistan

An Afghan soldier dresses up a snowman with his overcoat, helmet and automatic rifle at his guard position in Kabul
Efforts are being made to disarm local militias

Of all the challenges facing the new Afghanistan, taking away the guns is the greatest. As long as armed militias continue to exist, they threaten the authority of the central government of Hamid Karzai, and all attempts to create a new national army.

The United States and Japanese governments have already pledged $95m to cover the costs of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of Afghanistan's many fighters.

Most were armed to fight the 10-year-long Soviet occupation, which began in 1979. It is estimated that between 1986 and 1990, about $5bn worth of weapons were sent to the mujahideen, including laser-guided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Now, 13 years later, the post-Cold War world is considering how to take those arms away.

Proliferation of arms

But even in the past year, the number of weapons in circulation has risen again, this time due to the international coalition, led by the United States, providing arms and cash to their local allies.

On the streets of Kabul, young people name the proliferation of guns as the greatest threat to their security.

Despite the presence of the 5,000-strong international peacekeeping force in the capital, armed looters are a menace in the suburbs.

They arrive and demand payment and goods, usually at night. The fledgling police service is ill-equipped to provide security, particularly to those most at risk.

On the roads in the provinces, guns are an instrument for demanding unofficial taxes, and payments to local commanders. The funds they net help to provide for the armed men who work for the commanders. Often, militias like these offer the only possible employment.

Few gun-owners are likely to volunteer to give up their weapons. Afghanistan's is a gun culture. Carrying a gun is a passport to adult society for most men. They are fired into the air to celebrate weddings, and births. And they are kept to protect families, and communities, who have grown accustomed to war, after 23 years of conflict.

Without a sense of security, few will give up their guns but without the surrender of arms, there's unlikely to be security.

Peace Conference

This weekend's conference in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, is rather optimistically named, Consolidation of Peace.

Even as the cheques are handed over, it is unclear how the disarmament and demobilisation programme can be made to work. And the more serious truth is that beyond Kabul, there is little peace to be consolidated.

Junichiro Koizumi and Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai leaves behind warring factions at home

Even as Hamid Karzai took his retinue to Japan, there was fighting between local commanders in at least two provinces, and American forces were sweeping up after an operation engaging rebel fighters in the south west.

Despite calls for an expansion of international peacekeeping forces beyond Kabul, none of the more than 20 governments with soldiers represented in the force is prepared to make that commitment. It's a subject of disappointment to the Afghan government.

In an apparent attempt to provide more stability in the provinces, the United States military has begun establishing 'reconstruction teams' in towns like Gardez, in the south east. But the response to the programme has been underwhelming.

Aid agencies fear the military is blurring the lines between humanitarian and strategic interests, and provincial officials have wildly differing expectations of what the civil military teams will be able to deliver.

Even the Americans seem uncertain as to what their commitment is, or should be.

Slow reconstruction

Meanwhile, Afghanistan waits on reconstruction.

Nearly $5bn is pledged to pay for the country to be rebuilt, but still few Afghans have had their expectations for improvement met.

It's been a harsh winter for most, not so different from winters past, despite the presence of the international community en masse in the capital. There's very little electricity.

Refugee families who have returned crouch in the ruins of their homes, without the funds to put glass in the windows, or even finish the roof.

Disabled people and children beg in the streets, as the parade of aid agency landcruisers drives by.

In the under-resourced hospitals, doctors go without their salaries for another month.

Teachers prepare for a new school year, with scant materials. They hope that girls will continue their return to education, despite opposition by conservatives, who last year rocketed, and set fire to schools in some provinces.

In the countryside, farmers wait on their new crop of opium poppies to mature, despite a government ban on production. Experts fear it'll be a bumper year.

On television and radio, reports of impending war in Iraq grow louder.

For many Afghans, it is a warning that their moment in the full glare of international attention is nearly done.

They fear their hopes for a better future will be left unrealised, as the War on Terror moves to its next location.



LINKS TO MORE SOUTH ASIA STORIES


 

SEE ALSO:
'Stay in Afghanistan,' Karzai urges
12 Feb 03 |  South Asia
Can an Afghan army deliver peace?
03 Dec 02 |  South Asia
Afghanistan's unfulfilled dreams
13 Nov 02 |  South Asia


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