- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan U.S. troops are giving confiscated weapons and ammunition to warlords in Afghanistan, a practice that critics say strengthens private militias and undermines attempts to establish a national army.

The national army was envisioned as a key to the stability of the fledgling government of President Hamid Karzai, which is under threat from powerful local warlords and wields little influence outside the capital, Kabul. But many of those same warlords are crucial to helping America fight the war on terror.

"If you have forces that are in contact with the enemy, or subject to being in contact with the enemy, they need to have adequate weapons," Col. Roger King, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said this week. He added that many of the warlords are nominally aligned with the central government anyway, though not formally part of the fledgling army.

Every week, U.S. troops combing eastern Afghanistan find huge weapons caches. On Friday, the military uncovered an arsenal in a warehouse in Khost and filled 35 trucks with everything from 120-mm rockets to anti-tank guns.

Militia fighters traveling with U.S. troops got first crack at seized weapons and ammunition, followed by other nearby forces, Col. King said.

"If there's something left after that that's in good condition, then that comes back to the Afghan national army," he said. Much of the ammunition is in bad condition, he said, and is destroyed by U.S. troops.

Col. King said he did not know how many weapons had been given to the militias and how many to the national army. But critics say arming the warlords sets a bad precedent.

"You've got a situation where Karzai is basically the mayor of Kabul during daylight hours. It's not going to change until the government has forces to call its own," said Peter Singer, a research fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who has written about plans for the Afghan army.

"You would expect that they would put a premium on arming the army over the warlords," said Jim Phillips, an Afghanistan analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The U.S. Central Command, which is directing operations in Afghanistan, said it sees no contradiction between arming warlords and strengthening the national government.

Officials with Mr. Karzai's government said it has accepted the practice while the army is being trained, but has reservations.

"We'd really like to see all these weapons collected and transferred to the Defense Ministry," said Mr. Karzai's chief of staff, Said Tayeb Jawad.

Afghanistan's warlords have a history of turning their arms on each other. Their fighting in the 1990s devastated the country and led to the rise of the Taliban.

Some commanders are still waging pitched battles against each other, making vast parts of northern Afghanistan dangerous for international aid workers.

Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim himself commands a private militia, and is believed to have large stockpiles of weapons in the Panjshir Valley. He has questioned the need for a national army in the past, but has changed his public stance under international pressure.

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