More Afghan soldiers deserting the Army: NATO



Washington: At least one in seven Afghan soldiers have deserted during the first six months of this year, complicating the security situation in the war-torn country ahead of a gradual drawdown of US troops by 2014.

Between January and June, more than 24,000 soldiers walked off the job, more than twice as many as in the same period last year, according to statistics compiled by NATO that show an increase in desertion.

In June alone, more than 5,000 soldiers deserted, nearly three per cent of the 170,000-strong force, The Washington Post reported.

Some Afghan officials say the figures point to the vulnerability of a long-standing Afghan policy that prohibits punishment of deserters. The rule, issued under a decree by President Hamid Karzai, was aimed to encourage recruiting and allow for some flexibility during harvest time, when the number of desertions spikes.

"I am personally in favour of removing that amnesty," said Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief of staff of the Afghan army. "We cannot turn a blind eye on the individuals who are doing something wrong."

As recently as September 2009, more Afghan soldiers had been quitting than joining the army, but that trend had been reversed by aggressive recruiting, salary increases and guarantees of regular leave, the Post said.

Afghan and coalition military officials said they believe they can make progress toward expanding the army to about 200,000 soldiers, despite the recent increase in desertions. But they acknowledged that it will be important for Afghanistan to reduce the dropout rate as the number of US soldiers in the country begins to decline and as more of the security burden begins to shift toward the Afghan army.

About 10,000 US troops are due to leave Afghanistan this year, part of a gradual drawdown through the end of 2014.

US President Barack Obama said in June another 23,000 American troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer, leaving behind a 65,000-strong force and effectively ending a surge of troops ordered in late 2009.

"The army has got to figure out how to get their attrition down," said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who oversees NATO's efforts to build up the Afghan security forces. Afghan and coalition officials said the soldiers who leave often complain about poor living conditions or commanders who do not allow a regular vacation schedule.

But Afghan and US military officials also said poor leadership is a main reason soldiers desert the ranks. NATO's training command has developed an extensive plan to attempt to lower attrition further, saying an acceptable goal would be 1.4 per cent per month or about 17 per cent a year. July?s attrition rate was 2.2 per cent.

"If we're in the same situation in 3.5 years" when Afghans are scheduled to be in charge of their security "then we have a problem," said Canadian Maj Gen D Michael Day, a deputy commander in NATO's training mission in Kabul.

PTI