Afghan Army’s Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy
KABUL, Afghanistan — The first thing Col. Akbar Stanikzai does when he interviews recruits for the Afghan National Army is take their cellphones.
He checks to see if the ringtones are Taliban campaign tunes, if the screen savers show the white Taliban flag on a black background, or if the phone memory includes any insurgent beheading videos.
Often enough they flunk that first test, but that hardly means they will not qualify to join their country’s manpower-hungry military. Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.
The attrition strikes at the core of America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.
The Afghan deserters complain of corruption among their officers, poor food and equipment, indifferent medical care, Taliban intimidation of their families and, probably most troublingly, a lack of belief in the army’s ability to fight the insurgents after the American military withdraws.
On top of that, recruits now undergo tougher vetting because of concerns that enemy infiltration of the Afghan military is contributing to a wave of attacks on international forces.
Colonel Stanikzai, a senior official at the army’s National Recruiting Center, is on the front line of that effort; in the six months through September, he and his team of 17 interviewers have rejected 962 applicants, he said.
“There are drug traffickers who want to use our units for their business, enemy infiltrators who want to raise problems, jailbirds who can’t find any other job,” he said. During the same period, however, 30,000 applicants were approved.
“Recruitment, it’s like a machine,” he said. “If you stopped, it would collapse.”
Despite the challenges, so far the Afghan recruiting process is not only on track, but actually ahead of schedule. Afghanistan’s army reached its full authorized strength in June, three months early, though there are still no units that American trainers consider able to operate entirely without NATO assistance.
According to Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, the Army’s desertion rate is now 7 to 10 percent. Despite substantial pay increases for soldiers who agree to re-enlist, only about 75 percent do, he said. (Recruits commit to three years of service.)
Put another way, a third of the Afghan Army perpetually consists of first-year recruits fresh off a 10- to 12-week training course. And in the meantime, tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year, albeit without their army weapons, in a country rife with militants who are always looking for help.
“Fortunately there are a lot of people who want a job with the army, and we’ve always managed to meet the goal set by the Ministry of Defense for us,” said Gen. Abrahim Ahmadzai, the deputy commander of the National Recruiting Center. The country’s 34 provincial recruitment centers have a combined quota of 5,000 new recruits a month.
“We’re not concerned about getting enough young men,” General Ahmadzai said, “just as long as we get that $4.1 billion a year from NATO.”
That is the amount pledged by the United States and its allies to continue paying to cover the expenses of the Afghan military.
In terms of soldiers’ pay, that underwrites $260 a month for the lowest ranks, which in Afghanistan is above-average pay for unskilled labor. A soldier who re-enlists would get a 23 percent raise, to at least $320 a month, more if he had been promoted.
But even as pay rates have risen, so has attrition, which two years ago was 26 percent. The trend is troubling — especially the desertions — as Afghan forces have shouldered an increasing share of the fighting.
American officials have tried to persuade the Afghans to criminalize desertion in an effort to reduce it; instead, Afghan officials have proposed a four-year effort to order the recall of 22,000 deserters, according to General Ahmadzai.
Meanwhile, Afghan deserters live so openly that they list their status as a job reference.
Ghubar, 27, who is from Parwan Province but lives in Kabul, deserted from his battalion with the First Brigade in Kabul just six months into his three-year commitment. Citing his military training, he promptly got a job as a security guard.
Ghubar declined to give more than his first name, but was not worried about being photographed. “There is no accountability,” he said. “If they had any accountability, it wouldn’t be such a bad army.”
Most of his complaints were echoed by the 10 other deserters interviewed on the record for this article.
“I wanted to serve my country, my homeland,” Ghubar said. “But after I joined, I saw the situation was all about corruption. The officers are too busy stealing the money to defeat the insurgents.”
A typical swindle described by the deserters was the diversion of the money allocated to commanders to pay for food, which is usually procured locally rather than distributed from a central depot. “Half the time we would get rice with a bone in it, with a little fat, no meat,” he said.
Ghubar added, “People who join the army, they just lose their hope.”
Ajmal, 24, from Kabul, who also gave only his first name and deserted from the same battalion, said he knew of commanders who had signed up their sons as “ghosts,” enabling them to collect army pay while attending university full time.
Muhammad Fazal Kochai, 28, who deserted from the First Brigade of the 201st Corps a year ago but still proudly shows the army ID card he carries in his wallet, had a particularly rough time. During his year in the army, 25 of his comrades were wounded and 15 killed out of his company of 100 to 150 men, stationed in the dangerous Tangi Wardak area of Wardak Province.
Still, he said, he would have stayed had it not been for the corruption of his officers: “Everybody is trying to make money to line their pockets and build their houses before the Americans leave.”
The final straw came when local villagers pointed him out after his unit had killed a local Taliban commander. “I started to get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We know who you are, and we’re going to kill you.’ ”
He deserted and called to tell the Taliban they did not have to worry about him any longer.
Now Mr. Kochai is convinced the Afghan Army will lose once the Americans leave.
“The army can do nothing on their own without the equipment and supplies of the Americans, without the air support, nothing,” he said.
Sher Agha, 25, from the Sarkano District of eastern Kunar Province, had a similar experience. “Unknown gunmen kept bothering my family and telling them to force me to quit my job and come back home,” he said. Finally, he did.
Most of the deserters either had been wounded or knew someone who had, and they had high marks for the American military’s medical evacuation ability, but complained of poor care and neglect once they were transferred to the Afghan system.
“When I was wounded, the Americans were there in 10 minutes and choppered me out of Khost,” Ajmal said. “Then I went to an Afghan military hospital and no one asked about me. My unit even had me listed as dead.” Someone from his unit did, however, come to retrieve valuable pieces of equipment like his body armor and ammunition belt. He deserted after the hospital discharged him.
At the National Recruiting Center, Colonel Stanikzai keeps working, but he admits to a bleak outlook. “The news of the American withdrawal has weakened our morale and boosted the morale of the enemy,” he said. “I am sorry to speak so frankly. If the international community abandons us again, we won’t be able to last.”
The colonel’s hunt for infiltrators is rooted in realism. Often the Taliban cellphone telltales are adopted by people in rural areas as a protection in case the insurgents stop them, he said, so alone they are hardly grounds for dismissal.
One day last month, his caseload included a convicted murderer from Kunduz: Abdullah, a 30-year-old who has only one name. He had neglected to mention his criminal record, but it was discovered through biometric files compiled with American assistance.
Abdullah pleaded that his offense had been a crime of passion and that the victim’s family had forgiven him and accepted the customary blood money. Colonel Stanikzai sent him back to Kunduz to get a letter from the police chief certifying him for service. Abdullah tried to kiss the colonel’s hand in gratitude.
“We are going through a very, very hard time here,” the colonel said.