By Levon Sevunts
Special to The Toronto Star
June 20, 2005
KABUL – Canada is a key player in an effort to bring under government control the huge arsenals of weapons and munitions held by Aghanistan’s private militias.
Christopher Alexander, the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan who co-chairs the Ammunition Steering Group along with Afghan Defence Minister Gen. Wardak, said that over the last 18 months, Canada has also been intimately involved in dismantling and demobilizing different militia groups that fought against the Taliban in 2001.
“They were factional units; they were ethnically homogeneous units,” said Alexander. “And the new national police, the new national army have to be truly national.”
About 60,000 Afghan combatants and soldiers have been demobilized in Afghanistan, according to documents released by the International Security Assistance Force. More than 46,000 have been reintegrated into civilian life, mostly through agriculture retraining programs, as part of a program run by Afghan authorities under the auspices of the United Nations.
In addition, more than 8,960 heavy weapons and more than 32,027 light weapons have been taken out of public circulation, ISAF says. Weapons that can be used by the new national security forces are given to them, and the rest are destroyed.
The general disarmament will grow to include disarming illegal armed groups and their warlords, Alexander said.
“We all know that there are a lot of weapons around and there is a lot of intimidation in villages and districts. There are people who still call themselves commanders and, in the absence of government authority, take decisions on behalf of the community,” Alexander said. “Ensuring that their impunity is reduced, ensuring that they are not sources of
criminality and instability (and) disarming them is the next challenge.”
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sept. 18, and many of these commanders and warlords plan to run for a seat.
“But the law says that no one who has a link to an illegal armed group shall be a candidate,” Alexander said. “So the Afghans, with the support of the international community, are giving these candidates the opportunity to disarm.”
Those who do not disarm will have to be disqualified from running in the elections, “and that’s going to be a big issue over the next two years,” Alexander added.
Every piece of ammunition and weapons recovered is inspected by Afghan and international experts, said Moudood Halimi, an ordnance disposal supervisor working with HALO Trust, an international organization dedicated to destruction of mines and unexploded ordnance. These experts then decide whether the ammunition or weapons can be transferred to the fledgling Afghan National Army or are too dangerous for use and must be destroyed.
“Sometimes we get ammunition from mujahideen commanders but we are not sure if it’s booby-trapped,” Halimi, a former colonel in the Afghan Communist army, said, watching his workers unload dozens of rockets, mortar rounds, cluster bombs and other munitions for destruction by Canadian combat engineers.
“Sometimes the ammunition is too old to be used by the ANA.”
Halimi said as part of the disarmament program members of his group regularly conduct ammunition surveys across the country.
“Often we know that a village commander hides ammunition in his private house,” Halimi said. “We go to him and try to convince him to surrender it. If he accepts, we destroy the ammunition, but if he doesn’t we can’t do anything; we don’t have the power to force him.”
A lot of the ammunition and ordnance the group finds in the capital region is turned over to Canadian combat engineers based at Camp Julien in southern Kabul. Lt. Chantal Tetreault, a troop commander with the 23rd Field Squadron 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment, said since April her unit has destroyed more than 4,000 kilograms of explosives from munitions. Twice most weeks, the Canadian engineers drive to a mountaintop range they call Indigo and destroy ammunition delivered by HALO Trust, she added.
Sgt. Wade Osmond, one of the squadron’s explosives experts, said the weapons originated all over the world: “Everything is here: Chinese, Bulgarian, Yugoslav, Soviet, you just name it.”
One day last week, the HALO Trust team delivered Egyptian cluster bombs, Chinese projectiles for recoilless rifles, Russian Katyusha rockets and howitzer shells, and Yugoslav mortar rounds. Tetreault said it’s estimated that there are between 75,000 and 150,000 tonnes of munitions and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan.
“It’s an important part of our job,” said Tetreault, who planned to spend her 24th birthday last Saturday on a range blowing up these relics of 25 years of war. “At the end of the day you feel like you did something tangible, something important for this country.”
Levon Sevunts is a Canadian freelance journalist travelling in Afghanistan.