- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — For almost 19 years, Syed Hakim lent his calloused hands and disciplined mind to the defense of Afghanistan, from military school in Kabul to the holy war against the Russians to the anti-Taliban militia currently guarding this dusty city 35 miles from the Pakistani border.

Last month, Mr. Hakim received a letter from the defense ministry saying Afghanistan no longer needed his services.

A new Western-trained army would take his place, it said, and Mr. Hakim should find a new life, as a farmer, maybe, or a shopkeeper.

“I’m a professional military man,” Mr. Hakim said, sitting in a United Nations office not far from the massive Bala Hisar fort, where he used to train soldiers in artillery.

“There is no reason for a professional soldier to demobilize. If they are going to take away the professional soldiers, how are they going to rebuild the army?”

Though many Afghan fighters feel liberated after laying down their guns, Mr. Hakim is one of thousands of officers — graduates of military colleges and veterans of the decade-long fight against the Red Army — who will be forced from military life in the crucial effort to disarm Afghanistan’s estimated 100,000 gunmen.

There is fear, however, that as older, more experienced soldiers are phased out, the new Afghan army won’t be ready to fill the vacuum.

“The combined experience of these officers is vast,” said defense ministry spokesman, Brig. Mar Jan. “What will replace them? Foreign-trained troops, God willing.”

The new Afghan National Army is having a troubled infancy. About half the 9,000 soldiers trained so far have deserted, and it’s unlikely the new force will reach its goal of 10,000 recruits in time for national elections next year. According to one estimate, the new army won’t reach full strength, 70,000 soldiers, until 2010.

In the meantime, most of Afghanistan’s soldiers remain members of private, ethnic-based militias. The warlords who command them are of dubious loyalty to the government of President Hamid Karzai, and many have been implicated in human rights abuses and drug trafficking.

As the new army grows, however fitfully, Afghanistan’s private forces are expected to fade away as more of their fighters take part in a three-year, $41 million program called Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration.

The program aims to turn Afghanistan’s guns-for-hire, most of them poorly paid and poorly treated by their commanders, into wage-earning citizens. “With the extended family system, demobilized soldiers will be supporting 1 million people, if the program succeeds,” said U.N. spokesman Jim Occiti.

Soldiers who turn in their weapons are treated like retiring heroes. They receive a medal, a signed certificate from Mr. Karzai and the training to become merchants, farmers, laborers, mine-sweepers, police or soldiers in the new Afghan National Army.

One thousand slots were made available for soldiers as part of a pilot program in Gardez, but only 447 chose to take part. Of those, most opted for farming or manual labor.

Thirty-one fighters chose to rejoin the new Afghan army or national police force, but there’s no place in the ranks for old soldiers like Mr. Hakim, who, at 35, is seven years over the age limit.

“The same thing you saw in Gardez is happening all over Afghanistan,” said Brig. Mar Jan, the defense ministry spokesman. “There are thousands of people like that. We’ve only got room for 20,000 officers and 50,000 foot soldiers. I feel bad about it, but these are the circumstances we’re in.”

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