Army Desertions Complicate Afghan Election Plans

The U.S.-backed government in Kabul is facing large-scale desertions by western-trained local security forces as it tries to establish a safe environment in the run-up to scheduled June elections.

The success of the upcoming vote has been predicated primarily on the creation of a 10,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) and a 20,000-strong police force, both of which are expected to provide security during the polls.

But more than 3,000 soldiers from the ANA have already abandoned their posts after training by instructors from the United States, France and Britain. The same is feared of a police force currently under training.

On Thursday an official with NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), whose troops are now serving in Afghanistan, suggested the vote could be delayed until August because of the security situation, reported London’s ‘Financial Times’ newspaper.

A day earlier, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed to NATO to provide more troops to safeguard the election process.

"Clearly, training more police, training more army will be part of creating a more secure environment for these elections," says Jean Arnault, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan.

The election target is to have 20,000 trained police officers, UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, told reporters in Kabul last week. "That is the hope – let’s see if reality will prove that this hope is true."

The army and the police are expected to provide protection to 8,400 registration sites, one-half of them for men, the other half for women.

To date, only about one million of Afghanistan’s estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have registered, according to UNAMA.

One expert blames the desertions on Washington’s influence on the nation that U.S. forces invaded after the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

"The fledgling Afghan military is losing its morale both because of the successes of the (former ruling) Taliban and because the real power in the country continues to be held by the unaccountable warlords, not the central government," said James Ingalls of the California Institute of Technology and founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission.

"The ANA is currently nothing more than another U.S.-backed armed faction, albeit a weak one," added Ingalls, author of ‘Buying Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan’.

The army’s nominal head, he said, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "widely recognized as a US puppet". But the army answers primarily to Minister of Defense General Mohammed Fahim, who is a warlord, according to Ingalls.

With U.S.-backed warlord armies distributed throughout the country, the US military itself conducting major military operations on the border with Pakistan, and the Taliban re-grouping and renewing their support base, "it is little wonder that the fledgling ANA is experiencing huge desertions", he added.

The ANA is not expected to be a major military player, Ingalls said, "and I don’t see its formation as much more than a token gesture to prove the nation-building abilities of Washington".

"Without a large international peacekeeping force, it is unclear how the US strategy of supporting warlord militias to ‘keep the peace’ throughout the country will give way to the takeover of security obligations by the ANA," he added.

Mark Sedra, a research associate at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), told IPS the ANA training program overseen by the United States has been "marred by an exceedingly high desertion rate".

Desertions reached a high of 10 percent of trainees per month in the summer of 2003, but has since been brought down to about three percent, he added.

Sedra, whose current research project involves monitoring security in Afghanistan, said there are several reasons for the ongoing desertions.

Washington has not only encountered problems attracting qualified recruits but also maintaining an ethnic balance in the composition of the army.

"There is a disproportionately large number of Tajiks and a disproportionately low number of Pashtuns (the country’s largest ethnic minority), particularly at the officer level," said Sedra.

This, he added, has led to increased suspicion of the Afghan force in Pashtun communities. "There have been reports that ethnic Tajik officers have abused, verbally and physically, recruits and soldiers from rival ethnic groups, although US officials will not confirm this."

The salary has been one of the biggest problems affecting the process, added Sedra. The 50-dollar monthly pay was increased to 70 dollars in late 2003. But the US army has estimated that a salary of 150 dollars will be needed to keep recruits in the ranks, he said.

Compounding the problem of low salaries is the lack of a system to deliver money. There is no banking system in Afghanistan, so soldiers stationed away from their families have no way of sending their pay home. "Many have merely taken their first salaries (home) and never returned."

The United States says that the first ANA battalions performed well in military operations in the country’s south. But ANA soldiers have expressed displeasure at being used as US proxies, Sedra said.

"The use of largely ethnic Tajik units in the Pashtun belt has also been a source of tension that has prompted many to leave the service," he added.

The process for recruiting police officers, on the other hand, has been hindered by endemic corruption within the ministry of interior; a lack of funds to pay salaries; the absence of a payment system, and a lack of equipment.

Washington has tried to accelerate the program by establishing seven regional police training centers to complement the central office. "They hope to complete the training of 60,000 rank-and-file officers by 2005, but this is far from certain," Sedra added.

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.