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 favor 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.
Afghan and coalition military officials said they believe
they can continue to 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
reduce the dropout rate as the number of U.S. soldiers in
the country begins to decline and as more of the security
burden begins to shift toward the Afghan army.
“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.
The attrition statistics since 2010 were provided by NATO’s
training command in Kabul in response to a request by The
Washington Post. The Afghan ministry of defense keeps its
own statistics on attrition that are generally slightly
lower than NATO’s but hew to the same trends. The Afghan
government’s tallies include soldiers who return after being
gone long enough to be considered deserters; NATO’s stats at
this time do not.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said he doubted that
dropouts would be a problem as Afghan forces took more
responsibility in coming years.
“We have accelerated in a way which we have never
accelerated before,” Wardak said in an interview last month,
referring to the growth of the army. “In the beginning
everybody was having doubt that we will not have recruits.
But till today . . . there
has been no problem with recruitment at all.”
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 U.S. military officials also said poor
leadership is a main reason soldiers desert the ranks. Those
commanders who are corrupt or fail to ensure proper pay,
food or vacation for their subordinates have higher
attrition. These problems have been around for years,
however, and coalition officials did not offer specific
reasons for the rising attrition this year.
“We’re not seeing any linkage to the amount of fighting
they’re doing,” said one U.S. military official who works
with Afghan security forces. “It really boils down to
Four months ago, Enayatullah, a 35-year-old soldier based in
Kabul, traded in his $350-a-month salary to flip burgers at
a high school cafeteria. Trained as a wrestler, he had been
a member of a unit whose soldiers played for the army’s
sports teams. When a new commander arrived and cut the daily
food stipend and sent the soldiers on more missions to
Wardak province, which is far more dangerous than Kabul,
Enayatullah grew disgruntled. He quit, along with eight of
his friends and fellow soldiers, he said.
“He made us all very disappointed,” Enayatullah said of the
new commander. “I was happy with my profession. If they
offered us what we had before, then we would be happy to go
At one point this summer, the pace of desertions climbed to
an annualized rate of 35 percent, though it has since
NATO’s training command has developed an extensive plan to
attempt to lower attrition further, saying an acceptable
goal would be 1.4 percent per month — or about 17 percent a
year. July’s attrition rate was 2.2 percent.
“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.