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Desertions Undermine Afghan Forces

Afghan soldier Essa Khan Laghmani was honored for foiling a Taliban Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament in June 2015.
Afghan soldier Essa Khan Laghmani was honored for foiling a Taliban Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament in June 2015.

When Lieutenant Amanullah joined the Afghan army, he was ready to sacrifice his life to prevent the Taliban from overrunning territory in his southern Afghan homeland.

But nearly 15 months later, he deserted. Amanullah recently became one of thousands of exhausted and disappointed Afghan soldiers to have shed their uniforms Their departure is seriously denting Afghan military muscle at a time when militants pose a growing threat.

Since the end of major NATO combat operations in December 2014, the Taliban have captured several important districts across southern Afghanistan, where they first emerged two decades ago.

28-year-old Amanullah, who like many Afghans uses one name, says he lost faith in the army after receiving no reinforcements and little assistance during a three-day battle with militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

While fighting on an empty stomach for three days, Amanullah saw many colleagues bleed to death around him because there was no medical care in the remote outpost.

He and three friends soon deserted their base near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

"I joined the army so I could support my family and serve my country, but this is a suicide mission," he says.

The attrition rates endanger the U.S. exit strategy that envisioned Afghan forces capable of fending off the Taliban after NATO's withdrawal.

Mounting violence in Afghanistan has already prompted Washington to slow down the pace of its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. These troops are part of a smaller NATO force focused on training and advising in Afghanistan after the alliance ended its combat mission in the country in December 2014.

According to the U.S. military, the Afghan army has had to replace about a third of its roughly 170,000 soldiers, affecting the overall capability of the force. High casualties, desertions, and low re-enlistment rates are given as the main reasons. A third of the army now consists of first-year recruits fresh off a three-month training course.

Washington has spent around $65 billion preparing fledgling Afghan security forces, intended to number about 350,000 personnel. In October, U.S. General John Campbell told Congress that high attrition rates are because of poor leadership and soldiers rarely getting holidays.

In some areas, soldiers "have probably been in a consistent fight for three years," he said.

According to a NATO military officer, who requested anonymity, the casualties among Afghan forces rose by 26 percent last year after they faced the biggest Taliban offensive since the hard-line movement was removed from power last year.

Some 15,800 Afghan soldiers were wounded or killed, or almost one in 10, according to the NATO officer.

Yet the overall size of the Afghan army remains stable. In an impoverished country, youth are still willing to risk their lives for a basic monthly salary of about $300. Patriotism also plays a role in motivating them to enlist.

On primetime television, the Afghan government runs adverts that show inspiring images of soldiers on training exercises, eating in well-stocked mess halls, and with good kit.

On remote frontlines, however, army and police deserters complain of poor leadership, corruption, an inability to respond to deadly insurgent ambushes, and a lack of a broader strategy for winning the war. Small military and police outposts frequently come under insurgent attacks, but receive little in the way of assistance or reinforcements.

"Barely a day passed without gunfire, ambushes, roadside bombs," said Farooq, a police officer from southern Helmand province, who quit his job three months ago. "We were treated as if we had no value and our job was to get killed."

The Afghan government says it is working to improve conditions. "We are very happy with the commitment of the police and soldiers," says Interior Ministry spokesman Sidiq Sidiqqi.

Since quitting his job, Amanullah has been struggling to find work. He's ready to reapply for the army.

"I'm hoping to work in a safer region and under better commanders," he said. "I'm just waiting for their response."

Reported for Reuters by Sayed Sarwar Amani and Andrew MacAskill