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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

Comments (14) Closed

zak Sep 05, 2013 02:37pm

Only solution is to let Pakistan take over the entire and full training of the Afghan Army. The two nations have a lot in common and ethnic links as well. Once they become twins armies there will be more control over operations against Taliban and peace will prevail. Afghanistan is a natural ally of Pakistan.

Hina Sep 05, 2013 02:45pm

Solution lies on Muslim world who should make allied armed forces to be deployed in disturbed areas.

mike ghaous Sep 05, 2013 08:00pm

Afghanistan is destined to go into civil war, they wanna go back to stone age....let them.Donot repeat the mistakes of 90s..

true Sep 06, 2013 02:18am

Afghanistan can't afford the army the US has saddled it with.

aditya Sep 06, 2013 05:12am

@zak: oh yeah that ll work really good..yr illustrious army has done has such a awesome fantastic job providing security in the country and protecting its borders it deserves to get a crack at another country,..someones on crack here

Shujaat khan Sep 06, 2013 05:53am

@zak: And what has Pakistan Army shown in the past 66 years besides the residential and agricultural land.

Ellen Sep 06, 2013 06:12am

@zak: And yet, Afghanistan has always been hostile towards Pakistan. I doubt that there ever will be any alliance between the countries. There never has been.

puppu Sep 06, 2013 08:50am

@zak: you dont know the main cause of problem in pakistan is due to afghanistan just era of mulla umar was good otherwise always they cause problem for pakistan

John Sep 06, 2013 09:52am

@Hina: Extremist will dub them as western puppets and will go after them too. At this point regardless its NATO, UN or Pakistan Army. Nobody can stop them. Basically unless they find a force that supports their agenda , they will fight it regardless what religion and background it belongs to.

dms Sep 06, 2013 02:24pm

@zak: Its surprising how ur thinking of training ANA,Have u got an idea wats brewing inside pakistan which ur armed forces are not able to stop.Pakistan needs to clean its house first

Arshad Khhan Sep 07, 2013 05:29pm

I am very disappointed by the media of Pakistan. When ever I read the article about Afghanistan, it shows pessimism and darkness for the future of Afghanistan. It's reality that Afghan Army is not 100% defectless but it's also reality that it has improved dramatically and on the way for perfection. Media should also show the positive and developed sides of Afghanistan and give away their hostility towards Afg.

syed tariq Sep 08, 2013 12:47am

The powers that be made sure there were no other jobs created so that Afghans would take the only job in town...a police or military job. These are things that are our naive public are unaware of.

Its the wadera mentality, they wont allow new industry or jobs on their lands so the peasants and their children can do only one work as Haris.

syed tariq Sep 08, 2013 12:53am

@Ellen: they have, are and will remain jealous. They love to live here, but also love to hate here. Its the nature.

syed tariq Sep 08, 2013 12:52am

@zak: get real, stay away, lock the borders and stop dreaming, they will kill you if you land there and announce you are from Pakistan, stop being foolish.