To bolster Afghan ranks, U.S. encourages ethnic balance, pay raises

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recruiting to meet the goals for growing the Afghan army has to be stepped up even more to replace the 20 percent loss of troops each year from deaths, serious injuries and absences without official leave, according to a NATO official in Afghanistan.

The attrition level is "a little bit higher than we want, [and] that means that we have to crank in more in the recruiting base," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Hogg, deputy commander of the NATO training mission for the Afghan army, told reporters last week. "Attrition is not just focused on soldiers going AWOL," he said. "It's AWOL, it's those killed in action, it's those that are seriously wounded and unable to continue their military service."

Building up Afghan security forces is a key part of the plan to begin reducing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in 2011. That would include having about 134,000 troops in the Afghan army by this October. Currently, there are 104,000 in service and 17,000 more in basic training, Hogg said. With an additional 20,000 in training, including officers, noncommissioned officers and counterinsurgency teams, Hogg said he is "on a glide path" to meet the October goal.

Attrition is not the only consideration. The Afghan army retention rate -- those reenlisting after three years of service -- is at 67 percent, which means the roughly one-third who leave also have to be replaced.

Hogg cited several elements that could help make up for the attrition, including a $45-a-month pay increase that raised a recruit's monthly salary to $165. Another is a bonus system that provides as much as $75 if a recruit goes into a dangerous province such as Helmand, or $65 for an area that is less threatening. In addition, the U.S. coalition has introduced a medical care program not just for members of the Afghan army but also "to include their families," Hogg said.

"That pay increase we've done has helped tremendously on the recruiting side," Hogg said. He noted that recruiting, which is handled by the Afghans, rose in December to 8,000 -- "over double what the Afghans have ever produced in the past," Hogg said. But, he pointed out, winter is the high recruiting season and the "real test" will come in the spring and summer, traditionally "a low recruiting time."

Hogg also noted the shortage of trained leadership, such as commissioned and noncommissioned Afghan army officers. Adding to that problem is an old custom: paying to become an officer. "The facts are, positions are still being bought," Hogg said. "I can't give you grand jury evidence to say that . . . to prove that, but it is happening."

To fill that gap temporarily, one plan is to recruit from 2,000 or so former mujaheddin, including older Pashtun fighters from southern Afghanistan who battled the Soviets in the 1980s and 1990s. Those who qualify are given eight weeks of training at the Kabul Military Training Center and inserted into existing units. "They're getting a little long in the tooth, but they have some leadership experience," Hogg said.

These "former mujes," as they are called, have been considered a reserve force because they receive a minimal retirement pay from the government. Hogg said that now he and the U.S. Embassy are working through the Afghan national security council to get a retirement policy for new members of the current Afghan army. "I think what we'll find is once we get a retirement policy in, we will be able . . . to get new blood moved in." It also will help accountability with officers, he said.

Trying to overcome the longtime problem of ethnic tensions within the army, the NATO training teams are putting together Afghan military units based on ethnic percentages set by the Afghan government. "It's a sensitive, emotional issue between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns for a whole variety of reasons," Hogg said. One reason is that the Tajiks, a national minority, traditionally have held high positions in the military, until recently.

"We don't have a lot of Pashtuns from the south," Hogg said, "so that's a targeting area for us for recruiting." He added, "It's a work in progress; we've got to balance out the Pashtuns right now."

Based on a survey, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, a Pashtun, set the percentage targets for each brigade, or "kandaks." The Pashtun target is 44 percent of the unit; the Tajik, 25 percent; the Hazara, 10 percent; Uzbek, 8 percent; and all others, 13 percent. "We do the same ethnic balancing for the leadership, but it is a challenge," Hogg said.

Of course, as Hogg put it, all these recruits ultimately will be a united military, or "go through the ethnic washing machine before they go into basic training." Keep your fingers crossed.

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