Karzai considers military draft in Afghanistan instead of all-volunteer army

April 29, 2011

Faced with daunting bills and uncertain about the United States’ long-term commitment to fund the Afghan army and police, President Hamid Karzai is considering a military draft to replace the all-volunteer force being built in Afghanistan, according to senior Afghan officials.

The prospect of mandatory conscription, though still only a topic of discussion, has some appeal for Karzai because it would be cheaper than fielding the costly security forces that are rapidly growing with American money and support, the officials said. The Afghan security forces are projected to cost more than $6 billion to sustain in 2014, the year Afghans are set to take sole control of their combat duties — a vast sum for a country that took in $1.5 billion in revenue last year.

“The number of Afghan security forces should be adequate to the security environment we have,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan’s national security adviser. “I don’t think we will have endlessly a very expensive army that we have to pay for.”

The topic has come up during the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan to reach a “strategic partnership” agreement that would outline the terms of America’s commitment here beyond 2014. American and Afghan officials worry about the ability of the United States and its NATO allies to foot the massive costs of the security forces for many years into the future.

Karzai also has political concerns about such a commitment. The starting salary for an army private is $165 a month, rising to more than $200 for those in hazardous areas, more than some judges, prosecutors or teachers make. A draft probably would allow the government to pay its troops less than it does now.

Karzai has worried that devoting too much of the state’s resources to the security forces — projected to be 310,000-strong later this year — could create an entitled military class with imposing political power that could undermine civilian authority, much as it has in Pakistan.

Karzai has publicly proposed the idea of a draft in the past, including during a visit to Germany in February 2010. 

“This is a discussion,” Spanta said of the draft idea, adding that it is being looked at for after 2014. “It’s not in the implementation phase.”

U.S. military officials involved in building the Afghan security forces have long opposed the idea of a draft. They argue that soldiers and police require a good wage to attract recruits and that they have already improved the ethnic balance of the security forces. Enticing Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan to fight the predominantly Pashtun Taliban has been an obstacle for years, but the aggressive recruiting drive for soldiers and police has already surpassed authorities’ targets.

“Why would you need a draft when you’ve got an overabundance of recruits?” asked one U.S. military official in Kabul involved in the training effort. On a draft, the official said, “our position would be absolutely not.”

A senior U.S. military official said the notion of a draft has not come up in conversation with Defense Minister Rahim Wardak.

A spokesman for Wardak said the constitution allows for conscription, but he added, “I think in the current situation, the country is not ready for a military draft.”

Conscription is not new in Afghanistan. The country had a draft during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s as well as in the previous four-decade rule of King Zahir Shah. Even with mandatory military service, some areas of the country, including Pashtun areas of the southeast, were exempt, and security was provided by local tribal militias. The prospect of bringing back the draft would face similar problems today in rural areas detached from the central government, said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. analyst and Afghanistan expert.

“There are some areas, including Pashtun areas, that are likely to be deeply resistant to conscription because they’re not going to want to be part of the central government,” Jones said.

“The most important issue is, will that make the army a more effective fighting force? What Afghanistan looks like in five to 10 years — a lot of these debates . . . will be irrelevant or moot if the government loses,” he added. “The most immediate issue is to win the war.”

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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