Desertions from Afghanistan's army pose security risk ahead of Nato exit

Recruits go back to their families and find jobs, a trend one US general says poses a ‘mortal risk’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 4:24am


Far from home, poorly paid and discriminated against, Mushtaq and Sefadullah are among thousands of Afghans deserting the army in a worrying trend two years before Nato troops leave.

It is not that the pair have joined the Taliban. Like many, they simply got fed up with life in the army, fighting a war. So they went back to the eastern city of Jalalabad, where they have both blossomed in new jobs.

Mushtaq, which is a fake name, says he served in the relatively peaceful western province of Herat but was discriminated against for being the same ethnic group as most of the Taliban.

A Pashtun from Tora Bora - where al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden hid after the 2001 invasion - Mushtaq said his officers treated him like a Taliban.

"Our commander was Tajik. All the Pashtuns were always blamed. So I left," said the 23-year-old, who works at an English-language information centre. "At that time, I had a good salary - 11,000 afghanis [HK$1,620]. Now I get only 4,000, but I'm happy. I'm free and I learn English."

General Olivier de Bavinchove, No3 commander in the US-led International Security Assistance Force, says around 50,000 soldiers - or about 26 per cent, of the 190,000-strong Afghan army - desert each year.

Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi says the desertion rate is significantly lower but is still around 10 to 15 per cent. In the US Army, the desertion rate is 0.3 per cent.

"This is a normal percentage in a warring situation in Afghanistan. In other countries, they are not in war, so they don't have a high rate," Azimi said.

"The desertion is seasonal," the spokesman added. "Some seasons and months are vacation seasons in which we have desertion, some months we don't have any."

Desertion is also a problem in the police but at the lower level of around 8 per cent a year, according to Isaf.

Bavinchove says there is so far little evidence that the soldiers are deserting the army to join the Taliban, but he believes that the trend poses a major risk to a military and a state dependent on Western aid to stay afloat.

"For the moment, we haven't seen these boys who leave the army early join the ranks of the insurgency. It does happen and it can still occur, but it is altogether marginal," Bavinchove said.

"On the other hand, this haemorrhage is a mortal risk for a country and an institution which will encounter considerable financial difficulties," he added, saying that desertions cost US$850 million of the US$4.1 billion stumped up by the international community each year to finance the army.

Sefadullah says he was fed up with being far from his wife and three children, one of whom has since died. He is now a driver and says he has no regrets.

"So I ran away. I got my salary, and I went back to Jalalabad," the 24-year-old said. "In my group, we were supposed to be 75 people, but only 13 were actually present. They would only come to get their salary and then they would go back home."

Neither of the former soldiers fears a court martial.

"Lots of other soldiers deserted before me, the army doesn't look for them," said Mushtaq, who nevertheless refused to give his real name.