Afghan Army's Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — The first thing Col. Akbar Stanikzai does when he interviews recruits for the Afghan National Army is take their cellphones.
He checks to see if the ringtones are Taliban campaign tunes, if the screen savers show the white Taliban flag on a black background, or if the phone memory includes any insurgent beheading videos.
Often enough they flunk that first test, but that hardly means they will not qualify to join their country's manpower-hungry military. Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.
The attrition strikes at the core of America's exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.
The Afghan deserters complain of corruption among their officers, poor food and equipment, indifferent medical care, Taliban intimidation of their families and, probably most troublingly, a lack of belief in the army's ability to fight the insurgents after the American military withdraws.
On top of that, recruits now undergo tougher vetting because of concerns that enemy infiltration of the Afghan military is contributing to a wave of attacks on international forces.
Colonel Stanikzai, a senior official at the army's National Recruiting Center, is on the front line of that effort; in the six months through September, he and his team of 17 interviewers have rejected 962 applicants, he said.
"There are drug traffickers who want to use our units for their business, enemy infiltrators who want to raise problems, jailbirds who can't find any other job," he said. During the same period, however, 30,000 applicants were approved.
"Recruitment, it's like a machine," he said. "If you stopped, it would collapse."
Despite the challenges, so far the Afghan recruiting process is not only on track, but actually ahead of schedule. Afghanistan's army reached its full authorized strength in June, three months early, though there are still no units that American trainers consider able to operate entirely without NATO assistance.
According to Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, the Army's desertion rate is now 7 to 10 percent. Despite substantial pay increases for soldiers who agree to re-enlist, only about 75 percent do, he said. (Recruits commit to three years of service.)
Put another way, a third of the Afghan Army perpetually consists of first-year recruits fresh off a 10- to 12-week training course. And in the meantime, tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year, albeit without their army weapons, in a country rife with militants who are always looking for help.
"Fortunately there are a lot of people who want a job with the army, and we've always managed to meet the goal set by the Ministry of Defense for us," said Gen. Abrahim Ahmadzai, the deputy commander of the National Recruiting Center. The country's 34 provincial recruitment centers have a combined quota of 5,000 new recruits a month.
"We're not concerned about getting enough young men," General Ahmadzai said, "just as long as we get that $4.1 billion a year from NATO."
That is the amount pledged by the United States and its allies to continue paying to cover the expenses of the Afghan military.
In terms of soldiers' pay, that underwrites $260 a month for the lowest ranks, which in Afghanistan is above-average pay for unskilled labor. A soldier who re-enlists would get a 23 percent raise, to at least $320 a month, more if he had been promoted.
But even as pay rates have risen, so has attrition, which two years ago was 26 percent. The trend is troubling — especially the desertions — as Afghan forces have shouldered an increasing share of the fighting. ..
American officials have tried to persuade the Afghans to criminalize desertion in an effort to reduce it; instead, Afghan officials have proposed a four-year effort to order the recall of 22,000 deserters, according to General Ahmadzai.
The officers are too busy stealing the money to defeat the insurgents."
Still, he said, he would have stayed had it not been for the corruption of his officers: "Everybody is trying to make money to line their pockets and build their houses before the Americans leave."