PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan — For the legendary fighters of the mujahedeen, defending the Panjshir Valley against the Soviets and the Taliban was an epic struggle, one that has earned this valley a revered place in Afghan history.
But for some former fighters in this former mujahedeen stronghold, laying down their weapons is proving to be a struggle of its own.
The valley, which American officials say is overflowing with weapons — officials estimate that there are more than 100 weapons depots hidden in the rugged terrain, or about 3,000 truckloads’ worth — is part of a U.N. program that aims to disarm illegal and former militant groups in Afghanistan. The program takes a two-pronged approach to disarmament: the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program and the Disbandment of Illegally Armed Groups program.
In Panjshir Valley, the disarmament effort has been encouraged by members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team, an American civilian-military group dedicated to building infrastructure. While the American military has no direct role in the disarmament process, officials say, many locals view reconstruction projects as reward for participation.
While the disarmament process has been largely successful both nationally and in Panjshir Valley — nearly 37,000 weapons have been recovered nationally; in the valley, nine to 15 truckloads are surrendered each week — officials say the valley is uniquely reticent to give up its defenses.
“Mujahedeen here are a prevalent force,” said Maj. Paul Johnson, a reservist from the 429th Civil Affairs Battalion, 321st Civil Affairs Brigade. “There are people here who have been born fighting and have done nothing but. What’s being told is ‘It’s a new era, there’s no longer a need to do this.’”
That line of thinking has been met with skepticism.
“It’s not popular,” said Fletcher Burton, civilian director of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team. “It’s controversial here. They view these weapons as a sort of insurance policy.”
Working with the former mujahedeen has been especially tricky, officials said.
“They don’t like [the disarmament process],” said Maj. Christopher Granfield, deputy director of the provincial reconstruction team. “But they will cooperate.”
The uncertain nature of the group — a formerly legitimate group that no longer holds official status — contributes to the difficulty of disarmament, Granfield said.
“That’s a real debate: What are they out there?” he said. “They’re not an illegal militia. It’s a loose association. That old power structure is still there. … They’re like a [Veterans of Foreign Wars] or an American Legion. It’s a bunch of veterans who get together in a social atmosphere.”
After weapons are surrendered, many former fighters are offered new career options. The United Nations provides training in tailoring, carpentry, agriculture and more.
“They’re not too happy with the reintegration part,” Granfield said. “Especially the former commanders. The skills reintegration teaches are not necessarily things they want to do. They don’t want to go into tailoring. They don’t want to go into carpentry. They used to command groups of people.”
Nor, he said, do many choose to go into the national army.
“A lot of them looked at the money and said, ‘No, I can make more farming.’ Some of them didn’t want to leave the valley.”
But many of the valley’s leaders — most of whom are former mujahedeen — paint a rosier picture.
Deputy Gov. Haji Abdul Rahman Kabiry, who served as a political adviser to the mujahedeen during the Taliban era, said he fully supported the disarmament process.
He credits the program’s success with what locals perceive to be a carrot-and-stick method: surrender weapons, get reconstruction projects.
“In the beginning, there was a little bit of disagreement about the [disarmament process],” he said in Dari, through a translator. “But after the [provincial reconstruction team] started reconstruction in the valley, people’s hearts and minds changed completely. We do not see anybody right now who’s against [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration]. … Right now they are very optimistic. They believe the Taliban and al-Qaida are weakening. They believe that the international community is helping us.”