Losing Its Few Good Men

Times Staff Writer

To serve his country in the new Afghan National Army, Saifullah Jan first had to find himself an assault rifle.

The weapon was required for admittance to the Kabul Military Training Center, where Americans and other Westerners have been struggling to build an army for a year and a half.

By accepting only those volunteers who were already armed, the U.S.-led coalition hoped to solve two problems at once: Each recruit would be another Afghan soldier in the fight against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their allies, and each rifle delivered to Kabul would be one less gun in the service of warlords undermining the central government.

As often happens in Afghanistan, things haven't worked out quite as planned. Army recruits -- including Jan -- have quit by the hundreds, in many cases because they don't think the pay is worth the risk.

The large number of dropouts -- and the griping soldiers who say they're going to follow them out the door -- has slowed the effort to replace ethnically based militias with a cohesive force that answers to President Hamid Karzai.

The rifles many handed in were worthless, so the army eventually dropped the requirement. But it was still in effect in March when Jan left his village north of Kabul, the capital, and reported for training.

In a transaction that illustrates Afghanistan's uneasy transition from war to peace, he picked up an AK-47 from a local warlord eager to please his commander, Mohammed Qassim Fahim. Fahim is Karzai's defense minister, but he is also commander of Northern Alliance militia forces that are one of Karzai's main rivals for power.

In Kabul, the army recorded the serial number of Jan's weapon, impounded it, and welcomed him into the ranks of the 7th Battalion. Six weeks later, he was gone.

Jan's departure was part of an exodus of trainees, many of them Pushtun -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -- from the country's east, where the fundamentalist Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network are waging a guerrilla war.

"When I first joined the battalion, there were 300 soldiers," he said. "There were people from Kandahar and Zabol, and they said that they were told, 'You'll be given $150 a month.' "

But the pay for raw recruits last spring turned out to be much less.

"When they found out it was only $30, those who had enough money for the bus fare back home left as soon as they heard," Jan said. "Those who didn't have money waited until they received their salary and then they left."

A U.S.-led force of 11,500 soldiers patrols the Afghan countryside, coming under attack and occasionally taking casualties as they hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and fighters who remain loyal to them.

So far, about 6,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained for a planned force of 70,000 -- but many of them have left. Soldiers who've stayed spend much of their time on base, leaving most of the country to the mercy of warlords, drug barons, bandits and insurgents. At the current rate, it will take four to six more years to build the military up to full strength, said Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Asifi, the Afghan officer in charge of training.

The general said he didn't know how many soldiers had quit since U.S. and other coalition troops began training the army in June 2002. Defense Ministry officials also said they couldn't provide a figure.

But an Afghan second lieutenant at the training center, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said most of those who walk out leave before they finish 10 weeks of rigorous boot camp. His own company of 198 soldiers had dropped to 134.

"In total, we have roughly 6,000 trained soldiers, out of whom no less than 2,000 have left," the officer said.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that there had been "bumps in the road" in recruiting and training soldiers, but they said progress was being made. One defense official said that there were now 5,300 troops on duty in the Afghan army and that U.S. officials expected at least twice that many by this time next year. Officials said they had no timetable for reaching the 70,000 figure.

A second official, who is familiar with the training, said that despite the complications, the army has proved effective in combat operations.

"There are hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers who are making a difference," the official said. "They are fighting alongside coalition soldiers. In some cases, they are dying."

Six companies of Afghan troops have established a permanent presence in the Zormat valley of eastern Afghanistan to counter anti-coalition forces, the official said.

Like Karzai's interim government, the National Army is dominated by ethnic minorities, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. They leave their Kabul base for a few weeks at a time to fight the Taliban and its allies in the Pushtun heartland in the east, where the troops are widely resented as invaders.

Given the choice between the relative safety and comfort of their home turf and going to war on someone else's -- even if only for short stints -- many Afghan soldiers have decided that their paychecks aren't big enough.

Soldiers say it would help morale if they could be based closer to home, but the army hasn't decided whether to set up training camps in the provinces, said Sakhi, the general in charge of training. The army appears to be waiting to see how quickly the United Nations moves on its plan to disarm 100,000 former Afghan fighters before 2005.

U.N. teams will offer $200 cash and more than 280 pounds of food to former combatants who give up their weapons and look for jobs, which are few and far between for young Afghan men.

After a recent raise, basic monthly salaries for troops who complete training range from $70 for soldiers to a maximum of $400 for officers, Sakhi said.

For as long as they have been paid, soldiers have complained that it isn't enough. But for troops in the new Afghan army, there is a particular irritant: Afghan interpreters working with U.S. soldiers -- called terps by troops in the field -- can earn more than an Afghan army officer. They receive $400 a month at their base in Kabul and at least $435 in the field, said 1st Sgt. Abdul Bari.

Maj. Taza Gul, operations officer for the army's 1st Battalion, said that despite recent raises, at least 100 of the unit's 600 soldiers have quit. More say they'll soon follow.

"Their houses were far from Kabul, and the salary wouldn't have even been enough for bus fare," Gul, 43, said in a recent interview in Qalat, the capital of Zabol province, one of the main battlegrounds against the Taliban. Gul, who joined the Afghan army 23 years ago when it was under the control of Soviet occupiers, gets $180 a month.

"All Afghans have economic problems, so the government has to do something about this," Gul said. "It is a kind of humiliation, and we don't like this policy."

Karzai recently blamed a shortage of foreign aid for the slow progress in building the army.

Afghan troops are gradually taking on more dangerous missions as they join U.S. units on some search operations for Taliban guerrillas or their allies. Armed with only light weapons such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the Afghans expect U.S. airpower to save them if they get in real trouble.

The 1st Battalion hasn't seen any combat in several recent operations, but there have been many close calls with land mines, Gul said. Four months ago, a bomb destroyed a vehicle in one of his convoys, but no one was injured.

Bari, 28, started out with 130 men in his unit when the 1st Battalion finished boot camp in the spring of 2002. Now he has 50. Casualties are low. The problem is bad pay and war fatigue, the sergeant said.

The army recently raised the troops' salaries by adding $2 a day whenever the men are on operations outside Kabul, but the sojourns rarely last longer than a few weeks, so the bonus doesn't add up to much, soldiers complained.

"We are happy with everything we have -- the food, the clothing, the equipment -- but the only problem is the salary, which is so low," Bari said during a recent sweep against the Taliban in the remote mountains of Zabol. "These soldiers are working very hard. That is why most of them talk about quitting."

Sakhi says he doesn't understand the grousing, because soldiers earn more than twice what government office workers do, and the army offers more benefits.

"A government worker eats his or her food in the house, but a soldier eats his food in the military base," he said. "Besides this, a soldier gets clothing, has a bed to sleep on, receives his food on time, has shoes and so many other benefits."

Since the new army is an all-volunteer force, however, soldiers aren't forced to stay.

"If one is not happy with the training, or has any other problem, he can quit any time," Sakhi said.

Jan said he didn't ask for his salary or the assault rifle when he left. He was in a hurry to get home, where he now works with a spade, digging wheelbarrow loads of dirt to make a floor for his new mud-brick house.

He had been looking forward to spilling Taliban blood. In late 1996, when Northern Alliance troops retreated from the Shomali plain north of Kabul, invading Taliban fighters dragged Jan's father out their house and killed him. They also set fire to the village and crops, said Jan, who escaped by fleeing northeast to Pakistan.

As a refugee, he made it only as far as the 11th grade, so his options were limited after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in December 2001.

Jan signed up for the army thinking he could help his country while earning enough money to support his mother and eight siblings.

The Taliban regime's collapse also opened up opportunities for Jan's older brother Sharifullah, 24, who passed the entrance exam to Kabul University. He enrolled to study agriculture, but that left the family without a breadwinner. The elder brother concluded that one of them had to quit and return to the village.

For a young man cheated out of an education by war, there was no argument. Books beat guns. After a few weeks in boot camp, Jan decided that his brother's education was worth more than a soldier could ever earn.

"I know how someone feels when he has to give up his studies," Jan said. As he looked up from his dusty hands, it was clear in his eyes that he understood all that he would never have.

About an hour's drive farther north, along rutted dirt roads, a man of about the same age has no intention of joining the army or surrendering his cherished AK-47. It will take some convincing, or the guarantee of a good job from the U.N., to persuade 22-year-old Nooryalai Khan to give up his weapon.

Khan is a member of Fahim's faction of the Northern Alliance and provides what he calls security in the small village marketplace in Daybali. He doesn't get paid anything by his commanders. Local shopkeepers give him $25 a month in tips, which some would call protection money.

It's a lot less than what Afghan soldiers are paid, but they lack one perk Khan doesn't want to lose: He rotates four days on duty and four days working his fields. He is never far from home, in a peaceful stretch of the Afghan countryside where the Taliban is just a bad memory.

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Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.

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