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Losing Its Few Good Men

Many of those who signed up to be trained for Afghanistan's fledgling army have quit, saying the pay isn't worth the risk.

November 27, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

GALA-I-FAIZ, Afghanistan — To serve his country in the new Afghan National Army, Saifullah Jan first had to find himself an assault rifle.

The weapon was required for admittance to the Kabul Military Training Center, where Americans and other Westerners have been struggling to build an army for a year and a half.

By accepting only those volunteers who were already armed, the U.S.-led coalition hoped to solve two problems at once: Each recruit would be another Afghan soldier in the fight against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their allies, and each rifle delivered to Kabul would be one less gun in the service of warlords undermining the central government.

As often happens in Afghanistan, things haven't worked out quite as planned. Army recruits -- including Jan -- have quit by the hundreds, in many cases because they don't think the pay is worth the risk.

The large number of dropouts -- and the griping soldiers who say they're going to follow them out the door -- has slowed the effort to replace ethnically based militias with a cohesive force that answers to President Hamid Karzai.

The rifles many handed in were worthless, so the army eventually dropped the requirement. But it was still in effect in March when Jan left his village north of Kabul, the capital, and reported for training.

In a transaction that illustrates Afghanistan's uneasy transition from war to peace, he picked up an AK-47 from a local warlord eager to please his commander, Mohammed Qassim Fahim. Fahim is Karzai's defense minister, but he is also commander of Northern Alliance militia forces that are one of Karzai's main rivals for power.

In Kabul, the army recorded the serial number of Jan's weapon, impounded it, and welcomed him into the ranks of the 7th Battalion. Six weeks later, he was gone.

Jan's departure was part of an exodus of trainees, many of them Pushtun -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -- from the country's east, where the fundamentalist Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network are waging a guerrilla war.

"When I first joined the battalion, there were 300 soldiers," he said. "There were people from Kandahar and Zabol, and they said that they were told, 'You'll be given $150 a month.' "

But the pay for raw recruits last spring turned out to be much less.

"When they found out it was only $30, those who had enough money for the bus fare back home left as soon as they heard," Jan said. "Those who didn't have money waited until they received their salary and then they left."

A U.S.-led force of 11,500 soldiers patrols the Afghan countryside, coming under attack and occasionally taking casualties as they hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and fighters who remain loyal to them.

So far, about 6,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained for a planned force of 70,000 -- but many of them have left. Soldiers who've stayed spend much of their time on base, leaving most of the country to the mercy of warlords, drug barons, bandits and insurgents. At the current rate, it will take four to six more years to build the military up to full strength, said Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Asifi, the Afghan officer in charge of training.

The general said he didn't know how many soldiers had quit since U.S. and other coalition troops began training the army in June 2002. Defense Ministry officials also said they couldn't provide a figure.

But an Afghan second lieutenant at the training center, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said most of those who walk out leave before they finish 10 weeks of rigorous boot camp. His own company of 198 soldiers had dropped to 134.

"In total, we have roughly 6,000 trained soldiers, out of whom no less than 2,000 have left," the officer said.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that there had been "bumps in the road" in recruiting and training soldiers, but they said progress was being made. One defense official said that there were now 5,300 troops on duty in the Afghan army and that U.S. officials expected at least twice that many by this time next year. Officials said they had no timetable for reaching the 70,000 figure.

A second official, who is familiar with the training, said that despite the complications, the army has proved effective in combat operations.

"There are hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers who are making a difference," the official said. "They are fighting alongside coalition soldiers. In some cases, they are dying."

Six companies of Afghan troops have established a permanent presence in the Zormat valley of eastern Afghanistan to counter anti-coalition forces, the official said.

Like Karzai's interim government, the National Army is dominated by ethnic minorities, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. They leave their Kabul base for a few weeks at a time to fight the Taliban and its allies in the Pushtun heartland in the east, where the troops are widely resented as invaders.

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