KABUL: In a gold-encrusted salon at the presidential palace last week, 22 new senior Afghan military officials were silently presented to the press while Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim announced that his ministry was a “vanguard of reform” and would now be run by an ethnically balanced corps of military professionals.

But as the new officials take up their duties this week, after months of pressure from international advisers and a week of intense seminars on human rights, civilian supremacy and other modern military values, experts and officials said it was unclear whether they would bring meaningful change to a powerful institution long dominated by one ethnic and political faction.

The overhaul is widely viewed as the first critical piece of an ambitious plan — strongly backed by the United Nations and Western governments — to depoliticize the Afghan armed forces, disarm and demobilize thousands of militiamen loyal to regional bosses and accelerate the creation of a foreign-trained, multiethnic national army. The disarmament programme got underway this week in the far northern province of Kunduz.

Even some of the newly appointed officials acknowledge that the challenges they face are formidable, given the weakness of central civilian authority, the resistance by ethnic militia leaders who feel they deserve a major share of power, and the gun culture that has become entrenched across Afghanistan during 25 years of war and civil strife.

“Our job is to build a ministry and an army like those of other free-world countries, obedient to civilian authority and committed to national interests,” said Rahim Wardak, 57, the new deputy defence minister and a former general in the Afghan army. “It is an enormous job, and I’m going to give it a real try. But a lot will depend on what changes we are able to make in the second and third and fourth echelons, not just at the top.”

Some critics said even the top-level changes were inadequate because Fahim remains the ministry’s head, with one of his closest associates, Gen. Bismillah Khan, as chief of staff. Both are ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, a group that dominates most security ministries. Of the Defence Ministry’s top three leaders, only Wardak is a member of the Pakhtoon ethnic group, Afghanistan’s largest, which includes President Hamid Karzai.

Other observers disagreed, saying they believed that the Panjshiris were prepared to share power. The faction’s main concern, they said, was making sure it was adequately rewarded and respected for its role in fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1990s and helping Western military forces drive out the radical Taliban militia in 2001.

“This is a massive organization, a personal fiefdom with a long habit of political interference. It needs to undergo a complete cultural change,” said a Western diplomat who closely follows Afghan military issues. “But I don’t think the Panjshiris want to dominate power. They are resentful that other ministries are not being asked to reform, though, and they are worried that their interests are not being well represented.”

One source of concern is the recent public opposition to the disarmament programme expressed by some militia leaders in the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition now headed by Fahim. The programme was to have begun months ago but was put on hold until the Defence Ministry reforms could be put in place.

But even though the ministry is now far more ethnically and regionally balanced at the top — the 22 new officials come from 14 provinces — and Fahim has repeatedly endorsed disarmament, some of his closest associates have said they are still unprepared to give up their weapons.

In some cases, reluctance to disarm stems from rivalries between militia forces, such as the continuing clashes between Gen. Rashid Dostum and Gen. Attah Mohammad in the north. In others, there is concern for the fate of thousands of unskilled fighters and alarm about intensifying attacks by a resurgent Taliban.

“Before we even think about disarming, the government needs to find jobs for people,” said Sidiq Chakari, a senior aide in Jamiat-i-Islami, the dominant political party of the Northern Alliance. “If you make all those freedom fighters disarm by force, they may escape to the mountains and join the (Taliban) opposition to take revenge.” Premature disarmament, he added, “could be very dangerous.”

Another issue clouding the picture of military reform and reorganization is the return of partisan politics. With a constitutional assembly scheduled for December and national elections slated for next summer, some military figures — possibly including Fahim — are positioning themselves for a political role and searching for civilian alliances.

The single most powerful inducement to both military reform and pacification, Afghan and foreign officials said, is the recent agreement by Nato and the UN Security Council to expand the mandate of the 4,500 multinational peacekeeping forces who patrol Kabul. It is not yet clear how many additional troops will be sent here, but observers said the actual numbers do not matter.

“Even if you have 10 or 20 peacekeepers in a town, it will be a deterrent to the warlords and others,” Wardak said. “No matter how small the forces are, there will be the image of 1 million Nato troops behind them.”

If anyone still wants to resist, he said, “this will break their back.”—Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.

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