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Youth Flocking To Join Army Ranks In Southern Afghanistan

Afghan soldier Essa Khan Laghmani explains how he shot and killed six Taliban inside the Afghan Parliament in Kabul on June 24.
Afghan soldier Essa Khan Laghmani explains how he shot and killed six Taliban inside the Afghan Parliament in Kabul on June 24.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Dozens and sometimes hundreds of young men brave the blazing sun every workday to join the Afghan National Army (ANA) in restive southern Afghanistan.

Inside an ANA recruitment center in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, they patiently wait for their paperwork to be processed and go through medical and dental examinations and tests for drug addiction.

Mahmood, 24, is one of those eager to join the ANA. He says he wants to defend Afghanistan and that the increasing violence this year means his country needs a better army.

"No doubt our homeland has been destroyed by wars and it remains impoverished, but serving it is the duty of every Afghan," he said.

Baryalai, 20, a resident of Kandahar city, wants to join the ANA soon after finishing high school.

"I just want to serve my country," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "I want to call on Afghan youth to join the ANA to serve our country."

The jump in recruitment numbers is a marked turnaround for the region because fewer young men dare to defy the Taliban who have threatened to kill anyone joining the Afghan Army in the region they considered their traditional stronghold.

The rise in recruitment is significant because it comes after NATO ended most combat operations late last year. Compared with the rest of the country, the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Nimroz, Uruzgan, Farah, and Helmand -- collectively called Loy or "Greater Kandahar" -- supplies fewer recruits because of Taliban threats and propaganda against the Western-funded Afghan Army now estimated to be 200,000 strong.

Colonel Noor Ahmed, in charge of the ANA recruitment center in Kandahar, says patriotism and the promises of a respected career are prompting Kandahari youth to join the Afghan military.

"Overall, there has been a 12 percent increase in recruitment volume this year," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We train them professionally and even run literacy courses for those soldiers who need it. The best and brightest are sent to the military training academy [to be trained as officers]."

The rise in recruitment levels has even pleased senior Afghan leaders.

"Very luckily, Afghan youth are more willing today than ever to join the ranks of their country's armed forces," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told journalists earlier this month. "Consistent to the demand, we have also adjusted and increased our [overall] recruitment volume up to 9 percent."

Contrary to gloomy speculations about their quick fragmentation, Afghan security forces rapidly filled the gap left behind by the departure of most international troops and the end of NATO combat operations late last year.

They have prevented the insurgents from running over large population centers and have recaptured some rural districts that the Taliban overran.

The ANA and the Afghan police, however, are stretched by unprecedented violence this year. They are facing unexpected casualty rates, and desertions among their ranks are still high. Their dependence on Western funding makes them vulnerable in the long term.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai from Kandahar.