Pay increase for Afghan troops boosts applications

By Glenn Kessler
Thursday, December 10, 2009

KABUL -- A recent pay increase for Afghan troops and police appears to have resulted in a surge of applicants, said the top U.S. military official for Afghan security training.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, citing Afghan statistics, said 2,659 Afghans had applied to join the security forces in the first seven days of this month, about half of the month's recruiting objective. In the three previous months, recruiting fell short of targets, with only 830 applicants in September, he said.

President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan, which calls for 30,000 U.S. reinforcements next year, depends heavily on the rapid development of a well-trained Afghan force that can begin to take over security from U.S. and NATO forces. Afghanistan has about 97,000 troops and 95,000 police officers, but they are poorly trained, have high turnover rates and are prone to corruption.

Much of the cost of training and paying Afghan forces is borne by the United States and other nations, with a nominal percentage contributed by the Afghan government. An Afghan soldier costs about $25,000 a year to train, equip and maintain, compared with $100,000 for a U.S. soldier, according to Caldwell's staff.

Caldwell said that before the pay increase, projections suggested that the combined force strength would reach 216,000 in July 2011 -- when Obama said he wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Caldwell said the goal under the new strategy is to boost that figure by then to 282,000, a 50 percent increase over current levels.

"It's clearly a challenge to get to that number, but that's a goal we're setting for ourselves," he told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "Realistically, we think we'll be between 250,000 and 280,000."

A key issue in boosting the Afghan force is ensuring it achieves a balance of ethnic groups that better reflects the country's makeup. Currently, for instance, Tajiks comprise 27 percent of the population but account for 41 percent of the officers, he said.

The Afghan government announced 10 days ago that it has significantly increased base pay and added several levels of combat pay, allowing it to better compete with the monthly payments that the radical Islamist Taliban insurgency offers its recruits. In Helmand province, for instance, an entry-level soldier earning $180 a month would now make $240 a month, according to Pentagon figures. In Kunduz, pay would double from $120 to $240 a month. Police pay, which previously lagged behind military salaries, was also raised closer to parity with the Taliban's.

The Taliban offers $250 to $300 a month, said Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. But that is a static number, he said, while joining the Afghan army and police offers the prospect of promotions, pay increases and a sense of national identity.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez said a NATO-led attack Tuesday in the eastern province of Laghman "possibly" resulted in civilian deaths. "In the confusion, there was obviously a firefight, and we are investigating," he said. Afghan forces participated in the attack, he said.

U.S. officials say reducing civilian casualties is essential to the new strategy's success.

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