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War of attrition as forces disappear from Afghanistan

September 05, 2013
At a time when they are meant to be taking over the fight against a battle-hardened insurgency, the forces are hemorrhaging more than a few good men. And women. -Photo AFP/Joel Saget
At a time when they are meant to be taking over the fight against a battle-hardened insurgency, the forces are hemorrhaging more than a few good men. And women. -Photo AFP/Joel Saget

KABUL: General Sayed Mohammad Roshandel is not a man who scares easily: he spent years battling both the insurgency and corruption in a violent province on the Afghan-Iranian border, and several more facing down the Taliban in Kabul’s crowded, dusty streets, under the full glare of the world’s media.

But earlier this summer, the officer who had risen from an ordinary background to become head of special forces for the Afghan police slipped away from an official work trip to Europe, crossing into Denmark, where he intended to apply for political asylum, sources with knowledge of his trip told the Guardian.

The interior ministry, to which Roshandel reports, confirmed he had been in Europe for over two months, but said he was on extended leave to deal with family issues.

A few weeks after Roshandel’s journey, a pioneering army helicopter pilot, Latifa Nabizada, hailed as Afghanistan’s Amelia Earhart, made her last landing and shifted to a desk job in the ministry of defence, after a barrage of Taliban threats against her family became too intense.

The news of both moves has been hushed up in Kabul, where they are perhaps the most high-profile examples of a more widespread problem facing the country’s police and army. At a time when they are meant to be taking over the fight against a ruthless, battle-hardened insurgency, and as the west moves into a support role, the forces are hemorrhaging more than a few good men. And women.

Many of the losses are deaths and injuries in battle, with casualties mounting up at a rate that senior Afghan and Nato commanders both admit poses a serious risk to morale. But thousands more are men, and a few women, who go awol or simply don’t renew their contracts.

Nato and the Afghan government have hailed the expansion of the police and army to a 350,000-strong force in just a few years of intense recruitment and development; the west didn't really turn its focus to training them until 2009.

But there have been concerns about the durability of such a rapidly assembled force. A recent US government report found that in the six months to March 2013, the Afghan national army lost men at an average rate of over 3 per cent each month. That amounts to over a third of its total strength each year, an alarming number.

Cruel odds of injury or death, rising violence nationwide, widespread drug abuse, heavy corruption and Taliban targeting of soldiers and police even when away from their forces have all contributed to the departures, officials and analysts say.

Roshandel appears to have fallen victim to the lack of family connections that made his rise so impressive. His determination to crack down on corruption and lack of powerful backers left him vulnerable at the top, despite praise for his shakeup of once-listless forces.

Under his guidance, the police special units were transformed from a shaky force that operated only alongside foreign commandos into a powerful unit that earlier this year held off a major attack on the airport without a single casualty, and have won widespread plaudits.

Roshandel’s departure was unusual because he was a member of the usually well trained and highly motivated security elite, often closely groomed by Nato forces for success, and with access to perks like opportunities to travel abroad.

Most of the disappearing soldiers are far lower down the ranks, where there is often limited loyalty to Afghanistan or the security forces. In a country where by some estimates unemployment is higher than one in every three adult men, the primary driver of recruitment is frequently financial.

“People don’t join the police with the aim of serving the country, it’s just for the salary. If they don’t get paid for two months, they will leave,” said one officer with several years’ service.

I am in this job because I had no other options.

Nabizada, originally trained by the Russians and accompanied on flights by her young daughter when there was no one for childcare, did not want to stop flying, but was targeted by Taliban death threats.

It was eventually too dangerous for her to travel to the airfield every day.

A string of high-profile women have been killed recently, including a member of parliament, a senator, and the most senior female police officer in southern Helmand.

Her shift to a desk job diminishes the already thin ranks of the air force, and means another pilot will need to be trained. That will cost millions and take several years, highlighting one of the most dangerous effects of the attrition problem in a country expected to fight the Taliban more or less alone from the end of next year.

By arrangement with the Guardian