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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 / December 11, 2009

United States Marines interview a local Afghan while on a patrol in Qwual-e-now, in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan Friday.

Kevin Frayer/AP


Khan Neshin, Afghanistan

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.

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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.

“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