In an episode that suggests Afghanistan is slowly becoming safer, Shir Alam a 50-year-old local commander, surrendered several hundred mt of arms to a United Nations ammunitions stockpile and collection group on Thursday outside the capital, Kabul.
Alam had amassed the arms over three decades of conflict, first fighting Soviet forces during 1980s and later against rival militia groups during the 1990s civil war in the capital. He also fought the hardline Taliban regime as part of the Northern Alliance.
“These [weapons] have cost the sacrifice of hundreds of Mujahideen, but now I do not foresee any further conflicts and now we have a national army, they are of no use,” Alam told IRIN, as he opened a weapon cache to the weapons inspectors in Pajak village in the district of Paghman, close to the capital.
Alam’s arms depot - consisting of RPG launchers, machine guns, artillery pieces and hundreds of thousands of shells, mortar bombs and rifle rounds - is just a small portion of the weapons that the UN estimates are being held by different militia groups throughout the country.
Despite the commander’s gesture, the UN says it’s but a drop in the ocean. According to Afghanistan’s New Beginning Programme (ANBP), the official name of the UN-backed disarmament and weapons collection programme, huge amounts of ammunition and guns remain with local commanders and large militia forces and at ex-military bases and private stockpiles throughout Afghanistan.
With many rural Afghan areas still under the rule of the gun, the existence of such quantities of ammunition and weapons in the hands of non-state actors means the danger of further conflict remains real.
“Most of the stockpiles are in the control of individual commanders and different paramilitary groups and they won’t give them up easily,” Rick Grant, a spokesman for ANBP, told IRIN on Monday in Kabul.
He said the UN had launched a survey to identify the locations of weapons stockpiles. “The purpose of the survey is to find out where the stuff [weapons] is and the second phase is over to the Ministry of Defence to decide how to collect it.”
UN surveyors have so far been to the western province of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif in the north, Nangarhar in the east and Kabul. More surveying teams are preparing to go to other areas of the country, Grant added.
Early findings indicate that there are around 600 Kamaz trucks (large Russian lorries) of ammunition in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif alone. In the capital, where security is good, cooperation from local commanders has been positive “Here in Kabul individual commanders are voluntarily coming to us and say please take my ammunition,” Grant said.
Another 5,000 mt of ammunition have recently been moved out of the western city of Herat, which accounts for only a third of the whole problem in Herat province, according to ANBP.
“In Jalalabad region the ammunition survey found almost no ammunition because the [US-led] coalition PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] were just blowing it up,” he said, noting that in Sheberghan and Mazar-e Sharif they expected to come across further massive storages or arms.
Grant said so far the survey teams had discovered 168 different collections of arms and ammunition, comprising 194,076 boxed and 487,729 unboxed arms in nine provinces of the country.
“The distinction between boxed and unboxed ammunition is important because it gives an indication of how much ammunition is potentially unstable or dangerous,” Grant noted.
The first phase is to find the ammunition, separate out the good material, which can be used by the Afghan army, and then destroy that which is dangerous and unstable, Grant added.
Canada is the lead nation for the project, and so far has contributed some US $400,000 to conduct the survey. The whole programme, which is expected to take more than a year, will require much extra funding.
According to ANBP, more than 40,000 of an estimated 60,000 members of Afghan militia forces have been disarmed since the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process started in late 2003. In addition, more than 98 percent of all heavy weapons - nearly 8,600 different types of active and in active heavy weapons - in Afghanistan have been collected.
On the problem of landmines, so far 2.8 million explosive devices, including mines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance), have been cleared from 320 million sq m of land. But 815 million sq m of land remain to be cleared to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.