In Afghanistan war, marines' struggle to recruit locals could delay US exit

In Khan Neshin, near the Pakistan border, recruitment of locals for the Afghanistan war effort is an often frustrating process. Obstacles include candidates' drug use, illiteracy, and fear of the Taliban.

By , Staff writer

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    United States Marines interview a local Afghan while on a patrol in Qwual-e-now, in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan Friday.
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The challenges with recruiting and training Afghan security forces in unstable parts of the country calls into question the ability to draw down international forces in 18 months.

Those Afghans willing to step forward to join are often constrained by outsider status, illiteracy, drug use, as well as lure of higher Taliban salaries and the fear of attacks on their families. Attracting a better breed of recruit – particularly those native to troubled regions – may require intensive efforts by international troops to improve security.

That’s the effort being undertaken in Helmand, a frontline province where the Marines have committed 10,000 troops to take – and stay in – Afghan towns and villages. Now they are just beginning to recruit and train residents of newly protected areas in the hope of producing more durable and independent forces.

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“The police have taken more casualties than anyone else, therefore it’s crucial to be able to establish a safe area for them to be recruited from and trained in,” says Lt. Col. (ret.) Christopher Langton, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Marines stormed into southern Helmand this July, pushing as far south as Khan Neshin, just 70 miles from the Pakistani border. Five months later, the safer atmosphere has begun to yield some recruits: Half of a new batch of 13 police recruits in Khan Nesin are from the surrounding farming town.

The last group had its problems.

Drug testing doesn't go well

Months of training and trust-building went down the tubes when the marines drug-tested their Afghan police partners. Eleven of the 19 police tested positive for opium, including a promising leader named Sgt. Anwar.

After the test, given three weeks ago, Anwar riled up his men against the marines, who all live inside an ancient castle here. The police threw rocks; the marines seized their guns. In the end, the marines sent the whole batch up to the provincial police headquarters and started over with fresh recruits.

Because of their recent arrival, the marines in Helmand have only 300 police, 1,300 Afghan National Army troops, and 500 border police, leaving them with the lowest ratio of Afghan to coalition forces in the country.

“The ratio we’d like to be at is 1-to-1,” says Lt. Col. Mark Winn, who heads up the development of Afghan security forces for the marines in Helmand. “I don’t think we will be at a 1-to-1 ratio in the next couple of years.”

More troops help, he says. “With the introduction of more [international] troops, we are able to expand the security that lends itself to development of Afghan security forces.”

Nationwide, the Afghan military and police total about 170,000. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal supports an expansion to 400,000. Only 43 of the 123 military units can operate independently, and just 24 of the 559 police units can do so, according to SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“It’s an alarmingly low figure of ANA that are actually deployable, given the numbers and the training to date,” says Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “I think it raises serious questions about an exit strategy based on Afghan [forces] taking over – unless we do have a political settlement so the security forces are there to maintain peace and protect the border, rather than to defeat a major insurgency.”

Low motivation, low prestige

Progress has been so slow partly because both the pool of recruits and their long-term motivation have been at rock bottom due to the dangers of the job and its low pay and prestige.

In the short-term, Afghan security forces have seen a jump in recruitment thanks partly to the recent increase in salaries. Pay for Afghan forces is now “almost at parity” with the Taliban, McChrystal testified this week.

Raising salaries, however, commits Afghanistan to budgets it cannot hope to sustain alone. On Tuesday, President Hamid Karzai said that his country would be unable to pay for its own security until at least 2024.

Police say prestige is as important as money.

“We should let the people know that police are servants of society and helping the country, then people will get the courage to become policemen,” says Mohammad Dawood, a border policeman stationed near Khan Neshin.

Mr. Dawood comes from Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, another relatively safe pocket. Still, going home on breaks remains risky: “I take off everything, uniform, all my police things. And when the Taliban ask where I have been, I say I’ve been working in Iran.”

Due to such risks, local and even regional recruits are rare, resulting in recruits being shipped in from the safe north to the unstable south and east. Some quit the moment they are told where they are headed.

The uneven recruitment has also left the Army with an ethnic imbalance, with trained Tajiks outnumbering Pashtuns 41 percent to 30 percent, according to SIGAR. That’s the inverse of the population as a whole, and a potential flashpoint for the dominant Pashtuns. (The Ministry of Defense denies the figures.)

The roughly 800 marines in Khan Neshin haven’t had eight years – just five months – to grow their police force to about 110. That level means that one-third of patrols still involve no Afghan security forces. But officers are optimistic that early recruits, if well trained, will help swell the ranks faster.

Some 40 of the police are set to return to Khan Neshin after graduating from a new eight-week training academy set up by international forces. Until then, police trainer Gunnery Sgt. Randy Scifo of New Orleans works with the fresh recruits, most of whom are waiting for their turn at school. He’s pleased some are local: “Police work is like a hometown thing.”

He starts them out without guns, just practicing foot-patrolling and body searches. The training may have to get more basic yet, to include reading. About 70 percent of recruits to the Afghan National Security forces are functionally illiterate, with the problem worse in the rural heartland of the insurgency.

On a recent patrol, the marines check on the former home of a Taliban sympathizer. Suspicious of IEDs, two marines walk gingerly ahead with mine sweepers. The police trainees hang back, one sucking nonchalantly on a lollipop as an old man ambles through the scene. It’s a teachable moment for Scifo, who explains that a perimeter must be secured.

Asked how much time he will need to work with the police once they graduate, Scifo says it depends on how they come back.

“It’s not like ordering Domino’s pizza and getting what I want,” says Scifo. “What condition they will be in, I have no idea."

Those who have attended the academy, such as the police lieutenant, appear more professional. After the patrol searches another compound, a tribal elder approaches the lieutenant, arguing that searches should be cleared first with him. The officer calmly explained how the marines allowed women to stay in one room unseen, and acquiesced to consulting the elder next time.

These are the rules

Some 50 border police, stationed at another marine outpost near Khan Neshin, have also attended the training. They live easily with the marines, sharing their Afghan food and taking the lead at roadside checkpoints.

While the rapport appeared strong, one marine was overheard saying that training foreign forces is frustrating. “At some level, it’s like, how hard is it?” he asks his Marine buddies. “Don’t fall asleep on watch, don’t smoke marijuana.”

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