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Desertions deplete Afghan Army

At the current pace, it will take until 2010 for the force to reach full strength - prolonging US Army stay.

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2003


In a muddy camp east of Kabul, Maj. Gen. Sher Karimi surveys the latest hard-won gains in the struggle to forge a national defense force for Afghanistan.

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Before him down the hill, a new Afghan artillery unit oils 122 mm howitzers under the patient instruction of a Mongolian trainer. Behind him stands a row of rusty Soviet Scuds and other missiles, rocket launchers, and artillery pieces trucked in Thursday night as part of a push to disarm regional militia of both small arms and heavy weapons.

Building a cohesive, ethnically diverse Afghan National Army (ANA), while gradually coaxing powerful local militia totaling some 100,000 men to lay down their arms are cornerstones of security and independence for Afghanistan. They are also vital preconditions for the withdrawal of the 16,000 US and other foreign troops here.

But General Karimi says that these remain far-off goals, complicated by competing allegiances among his soldiers and the nation's faction-ridden history. As ANA's chief of operations, he speaks of "the distant future, when Afghanistan is standing on its feet."

"We have problems, particularly the problem of attrition and desertion," says the Western-trained infantry officer, with the hint of a British accent.

Indeed, about half of the 9,000 Afghan Army recruits trained so far have quit, taking their boots and uniforms with them, he says. As a result, the ANA is rushing to enlist and meet a timetable of completing the Central Corps, with 10,000 soldiers in three brigades, before national elections planned for June. Even that number falls short of the goal of 12,500 ANA soldiers by June projected by a top US military official, Gen. Peter Pace, as recently as September.

At the current pace, Karimi estimates it will take until 2010 for the coalition to achieve its target of training 70,000 Afghan soldiers. Deserters must be tracked down and punished rather than left alone as they are now, he says.

Pay hurting morale

The high attrition rate prompted Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim to order an investigation into the problem, which officers attribute to several factors ranging from pay to cultural conflicts.

"If we can't pay rent, we have to find another job," says Mohammed Tahir, a platoon sergeant from Jalalabad who is helping to support an extended family of nine. Taking a break from infantry drills, Sergeant Tahir says he plans to make a career of the Afghan army, although he wants to increase his pay of $115 a month. (This is twice a teacher's wage, but far short of NGO pay.)

Artillery squad leader Habibullah agrees. The former trader of grapes and nuts earns $70 a month and complains that his family lives in a tent. He asks a reporter for help.

Soldiers often walk long distances home to deliver their pay, delaying training, US military officials say. "It takes a while to reorganize the Army" after each pay day, says Lt. Col. Glenn Bramhall whose National Guard unit is involved with training.

Other recruits leave because they are deceived or pressed into service, says Karimi. "They were told they would get $200 and go to America, but they came and got $30 and were doing hard work." Some were not true volunteers, but were forced to join under quotas imposed by local militia commanders, he says.