WASHINGTON - One in every four combat soldiers quit the Afghan National Army (ANA) during the year ending in September, published data by the U.S. Defense Department and the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan reveals.
That high rate of turnover in the ANA, driven by extremely high rates of desertion, spells trouble for the strategy that President Barack Obama has reportedly decided on, which is said to include the dispatch of thousands of additional U.S. military trainers in order to rapidly increase the size of the ANA.
The ANA has been touted by U.S. officials for years as a success story. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal called in his August 2009 strategy paper for increasing the ANA to 134,000 troops by October 2010 and eventually to 240,000.
But an administration source, who insisted on speaking without attribution because of the sensitivity of the subject, confirmed to IPS that 25 percent has been used as the turnover rate for the ANA in internal discussions, and that it is regarded by some officials as a serious problem.
The 35,000 troops recruited in the year ending Sept. 1 is the highest by the ANA in any year thus far, but the net increase of 19,000 troops for the year is 33 percent less than the 26,000 net increases during both of the previous two years.
Those figures indicate that the rate of turnover in the ANA is accelerating rather than slowing down. That acceleration could increase further, as the number of troops whose three-year enlistment contracts end rises rapidly in the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department sought to obscure the problem of the high ANA turnover rate in its reports to Congress on Afghanistan in January and June 2009, which avoided the issues of attrition and desertion entirely.
Instead they referred to what DOD calls the "AWOL" (Absent without Leave) rate in the ANA, which measures those unavailable for duty but still in the army. It claimed in June that the AWOL rate was nine percent through May 2009, compared with seven percent in 2008.
The reports also confused the question of turnover in the ANA by using questionable accounting methods in DOD's reporting on monthly changes in personnel. It provided figures for total ANA personnel in 2009 showing an increase from 66,000 in September 2008 to 94,000 in September 2009.
Those figures have made it appear that ANA manpower increased by 28,000 during the year. But nearly half the increase turns out to be accounted for by a decision on the part of the U.S. command responsible for tracking ANA manpower to change what was being measured.
Previously the total had included only those who had been trained and assigned to a military unit. But in late September 2008, CSTC-A started counting 12,000 men who had not previously been considered as part of the ANA.
In response to a query from IPS, Sgt. Grady L. Epperly, chief of media relations for CSTC-A, acknowledged that the U.S. command had abruptly changed what it included in its overall strength figures for the Afghan Army in late September 2008.
"The way numbers were reported was switched from reporting only Operational Forces to including all Soldiers, Officers and civilians, regardless of training status and command," Epperly wrote in an e-mail.
The graphs in the DOD reports of January and June 2009 are still identified as "Afghan National Army Trained and Assigned". But the text of the report reveals that the personnel totals shown on the graph were no longer for the Afghan National Army but for the Ministry of Defence.
That meant that the totals included for the first time those still in training, including even high school cadets, and others not assigned to any unit.
That deceptive accounting change obscured the fact that the total number of personnel assigned to ANA units in September 2009 was actually 82,000 rather than the 94,000 shown, and that the increase in ANA personnel over the year was only 16,000 rather than 28,000.
Using the corrected totals for changes in personnel during the year, the 25 percent turnover rate for ANA combat troops can be calculated from the available data on recruitment and the breakdown between combat and non-combat troops (See Sidebar).
ANA turnover as a proportion of ANA combat troops is a more significant indicator of instability than turnover as a proportion of all personnel, because there is little or no desertion and far higher reenlistment rates in non-combat jobs. ANA non-combat personnel totals also include thousands of civilians.
The impact of the 25-percent combat troop turnover rate on the ANA is actually more acute than it would appear, because of the high absenteeism rate in the ANA. The GAO report revealed that, as of February 2008, out of 32,000 combat troops on the rolls, only 26,000 were available for duty - a 19 percent absenteeism rate.
Assuming that same rate of absenteeism remained during the past year, the number of ANA combat troops actually available for duty increased only by about 9,000 from 37,000 to 46,000.
As serious as the turnover rate was in 2009-2009, turnover in the first two or three years of the ANA was much worse. ANA recruitment and reenlistment figures show that 18,000 of the first 25,000 troops recruited from 2003 to 2005 deserted.
That desertion rate prompted analysts at the U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas to conclude that the ANA would not be able to grow beyond 100,000, according to an article in the current issue of "Military Review", published at the same Army base.
The authors, Chris Mason and Thomas Johnson, both of whom have had extensive experience in Afghanistan, write that that the analysts at the Army Center concluded that by the time the ANA got to 100,000 troops, its annual losses from desertions and attrition would roughly equal its gains from recruitment.
The Center for Lessons Learned refused to confirm or deny those assertions. When asked about the assertion in the Military Review article, an official of the Center for Lessons Learned, operations officer Randy Cole, refused to comment except to refer IPS to the authors of the article.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.