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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.

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Religious and ethnic tensions have also taken a toll on retention, according to officers. "Most of the people were sent through jihadi factions, and seeing [non-Muslim] coalition trainers may not be acceptable to their ideology. Also, there are no mosques for them," says Karimi.

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Sergeant Tahir says when disputes arise in his multiethnic, regionally diverse platoon, he tackles them head on. "If someone disrupts the platoon, I take him aside and tell him we are like brothers. No matter if we are Tajik or Uzbek or Pashtun, we should be like one hand," he says.

Ultimately, it is the trials of military life that will bond ANA soldiers long accustomed to fighting along tribal lines. "When they live, suffer, fight, and die together ... they become buddies," says Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a former Afghan colonel.

While initially ANA patrols were largely symbolic, used mainly for training and recruiting, increasingly ANA soldiers are joining US-led coalition forces in combat operations in Afhanistan's border regions. Last month, for example, several ANA soldiers were wounded in joint operations. US forces still operate frequently with local Afghan militia, although in a few cases such militia have been accused of corruption and abuses against Afghan villagers.

Apart from manpower troubles, the Afghan Army suffers from a lack of modern equipment, Colonel Bramhall says. Most of the vehicles and weaponry are 1950s and '60s vintage Soviet gear donated from former Warsaw Pact countries, requiring Romanian and Bulgarian trainers here at the camp.

Hand-me-down heavy weapons

Weapons and vehicles collected from Afghan militia are also being turned over to the ANA. For example, last week Defense Minister Fahim's forces in the Panjshir Valley transferred dozens of anti-tank guns, howitzers, rockets, tanks, and surface-to-surface missiles to the ANA. Many of the weapons are obsolete and will be destroyed, however, US officers say. The NATO-led force is facilitating the cantonment of heavy weapons, jointly controlling them with the Afghan Defense Ministry.

More heavy weapons are to be turned over following this month's loya jirga in Kabul. Nevertheless, Karimi says some influential factional leaders such as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum resistbeing the first to disarm, while General Dostum's rival Atta Mohammad in Mazar-e Sharif has handed over more than 90 heavy weapons.

Militiamen are also starting to turn in small arms such as AK-47s in pilot disarmament programs in Kunduz, Gardez, and this month in Kabul. Nationwide, the disarmament will take a minimum of two years, Karimi predicts.

Despite the challenges, hope for the transformation of Afghan fighting forces lies in people like Barialiay, a private in an armored unit. A cookie baker with no prior military experience, Barialiay says he was attracted to the ANA by the "good uniforms, boots, and socks."

"I knew nothing about the military, but with our American and British trainers it's getting better day by day," he says. Although he misses his family in Logar Province, he says he'll stay in the ANA. "It's also a kind of responsibility for me for our country."

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