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Army Loses a Quarter of Recruits

Nearly 2,500 of those who have signed up have decided life in the military is not for them.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

A quarter of the recruits to the fledgling Afghan National Army, ANA, have left the force, many of them citing low pay as the top reason.


"The money was not enough for my expenses," said Hussein, who returned to his village on the outskirts of Kabul after three months of army training. "I now do tailoring at home and obtain twice as much as my [ANA] salary," he said.


Soldiers get about seven US dollars a day in expenses to cover transport and food, but they are paid only 70 dollars a month to provide for their families.


That amount doesn't go very far, especially in a city like Kabul, where the flood of returning refugees means that rents for even a simple apartment can exceed 100 dollars a month.


Maharam, who deserted after a year and a half in the army to return to his labouring job, told IWPR he thought his salary would be closer to 250 dollars a month when he initially signed up.


It is estimated that around 2,500 of the 10,000 member all-volunteer force have already fled.


The new multi-ethnic force, the creation of which is being overseen by the Americans, is supposed to replace armed factions. It is seen as crucial to asserting central government control throughout the country.


Recruits need to be aged between 18 and 28 years old, have no criminal record and good health. They receive three months training and are then expected to serve out their three-year enlistment period.


In January, deputy defence minister Rahim Wardak appeared on national television to appeal for deserters to return, warning that those who did not would receive bills for their training.


And indeed, one deserter, Naqibullah, who had run away after just 40 days with the ANA because “I couldn't support my family”, did return after hearing the appeal, hoping that his salary would be increased.


Mohammad, who was a farmer before signing up, warned that the situation would only get worse during the melon and poppy planting season, when disenchanted recruits would head back to the land.


Others cite their religious beliefs as the reason they have run away from the army and don't plan to return.


Mohammad Qasim said that he was put off by what he felt was American control of the army. "Our religious scholars say that the faith of those who work with the Americans is in danger, and those who die under their command are mere corpses and cannot have the final prayers performed," he said.


Some recruits from more conservative areas said they were frightened by reports that their families had become targets for anti-government forces because of their enlistment.


One army officer, who asked that his name not be used, said that many former members mujahedin groups who initially signed up in the ANA found the discipline and hard training too difficult.


Members of these guerrilla forces are more used to operating in small, autonomous groups.


Major General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the ministry of defence, told IWPR that he estimated about 1,700 of those who had left the army did so for health and family reasons, or because they had new educational opportunities. Therefore, they were not officially considered deserters, he said.


Of the other 800, Azimi said he believed that as many as 500 had already returned, leaving only about 300 who could truly be considered deserters.


Azimi emphasized that the country’s new fighting force was an “Islamic army” and urged youths to continue their “sacred duty”. He also said that soldiers' salaries may be increased at some point in the future.


Sergeant Jandat, one of those charged with tracking down the runaways, said he is relying on non-coercive methods to convince deserters to return to the ANA. "We haven't sought to forcibly capture anybody," he said.


Even Jandat agreed that current salaries are low. "My salary is 120 dollars [a month] and that doesn't meet the requirements of life," he said.


Still, the army seems to be able to attract new recruits. Colonel Karimullah Khan, head of an ANA recruitment office in central Kabul, said about 50 would-be soldiers come to his office every day to investigate signing up for what he says is a great opportunity.


"It is very beneficial for young men, especially the jobless ones, to join the national army because they can be prevented from gambling, theft, hashish and other activities," he said.


Sarbaz is one of those who is glad he joined the army after returning from Iran. He looks forward to restoring order in the country, even though he agrees that the current pay is too low to support a family.


He said he believes the country as a whole appreciates the new army's work.


"When we went to Gardez, Khost, Kandahar and Zabul on duty, we were warmly welcomed by the people because they were tired of warlords,” he said.


Hafizullah Gardesh is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.


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