KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Col. Peter Babbington, formerly of the British Royal Marines, has had a few tough assignments in a formidable career that ranged from the Falklands to Sierra Leone.
But never, he suggested recently with a grimace, did he know true lunacy until he arrived in Afghanistan to work for the United Nations.
Col. Babbington is charged with disarming 200,000 Afghan militiamen, including Islamic zealots left over from the years of Soviet occupation, and free-lance bandit gangs. He is not finding the job easy.
“Wherever disarmament has been done before, in Africa, Cambodia or wherever, you’ve had a couple of essential preconditions: first, a peace treaty; second, peacekeepers to enforce the disarmament process. …
“Here, you have no peace, no peacekeepers, and you have 200-plus warlords who claim to be interested in disarmament but, in practice, aren’t. You could say this makes the job interesting.”
The United States and the United Nations two weeks ago announced a radically revised plan to disarm 33,000 Afghans within the next three months. So far, the United Nations has disarmed 5,500 in six months.
But how Col. Babbington is supposed to achieve the revised target remains unclear. Kabul’s NATO-led force of 5,500 peacekeepers recently renewed a promise to deploy troops outside the capital, but no additional peacekeepers were pledged to fill the expanded role.
Unless such troops are pledged, Col. Babbington said, he will have no stick to persuade Afghanistan’s recalcitrant warlords to step into line. Instead, he has only carrots to win their compliance, including a top prize of business training in Japan, the country sponsoring the disarmament program.
“We’ve got to offer them incentives, carrots, because there is no stick; that’s always been the weakness of the program,” Col. Babbington said.
“The majority of Afghans want this to happen; it’s a question of isolating the commanders, of approaching each one as an individual case, finding out what they want, and hopefully taking some of them out.”
However, he said, it might seem hard to imagine Afghanistan’s mujahideen commanders — bearded veterans of a 23-year Islamic holy war — enrolling for bookkeeping classes in Tokyo.
The disarmament program opened in Kunduz, a northern town and heartland of the Northern Alliance, and immediately ran into trouble.
According to the terms of the program, each disarmed fighter was eligible for $200, a bag of food and vocational training in return for his weapon.
But local commanders ruled that they owned the guns and, therefore, the money was theirs. A dozen disarmed men were imprisoned after refusing to hand over the U.N. payments to their commanders.
Hazmatullah, a 32-year-old former fighter now being retrained by the United Nations as a carpenter, described being beaten for the same crime.
In interviews with several dozen recently disarmed men in Kunduz, all of them said they had gone back to farming after the Taliban was toppled. Only recently were they recalled, given guns and sent to claim the U.N. payments.
“I haven’t worn a uniform or fired a gun in years, not since Taliban times,” Qyammudin, 43, said during a break from smashing rocks at a U.N.-sponsored construction site.
“But I’m grateful to be disarmed. Working in the fields is unpredictable. This is boring, but at least I have a regular income.”