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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.

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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.

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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.”