KABUL — At least one in seven Afghan soldiers walked off the job during the first six months of this year, according to statistics compiled by NATO that show an increase in desertion.
Between January and June, more than 24,000 soldiers walked off the job, more than twice as many as in the same period last year, according to the NATO statistics. In June alone, more than 5,000 soldiers deserted, nearly 3 percent of the 170,000-strong force.
Some Afghan officials say the figures point to the vulnerability of a long-standing Afghan policy that prohibits punishment of deserters. The rule, issued under a decree by President Hamid Karzai, was aimed to encourage recruiting and allow for some flexibility during harvest time, when the number of desertions spikes.
“I am personally in favor of removing that amnesty,” said Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief of staff of the Afghan army. “We cannot turn a blind eye on the individuals who are doing something wrong.’’
As recently as September 2009, more Afghan soldiers had been quitting than joining the army, but that trend had been reversed by aggressive recruiting, salary increases and guarantees of regular leave.
Afghan and coalition military officials said they believe they can continue to make progress toward expanding the army to about 200,000 soldiers, despite the recent increase in desertions. But they acknowledged that it will be important for Afghanistan to reduce the dropout rate as the number of U.S. soldiers in the country begins to decline and as more of the security burden begins to shift toward the Afghan army.
“The army has got to figure out how to get their attrition down,” said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who oversees NATO’s efforts to build up the Afghan security forces.
The attrition statistics since 2010 were provided by NATO’s training command in Kabul in response to a request by The Washington Post. The Afghan ministry of defense keeps its own statistics on attrition that are generally slightly lower than NATO’s but hew to the same trends. The Afghan government’s tallies include soldiers who return after being gone long enough to be considered deserters; NATO’s stats at this time do not.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said he doubted that dropouts would be a problem as Afghan forces took more responsibility in coming years.
“We have accelerated in a way which we have never accelerated before,” Wardak said in an interview last month, referring to the growth of the army. “In the beginning everybody was having doubt that we will not have recruits. But till today . . . there has been no problem with recruitment at all.”
Afghan and coalition officials said the soldiers who leave often complain about poor living conditions or commanders who do not allow a regular vacation schedule.
But Afghan and U.S. military officials also said poor leadership is a main reason soldiers desert the ranks. Those commanders who are corrupt or fail to ensure proper pay, food or vacation for their subordinates have higher attrition. These problems have been around for years, however, and coalition officials did not offer specific reasons for the rising attrition this year.
“We’re not seeing any linkage to the amount of fighting they’re doing,” said one U.S. military official who works with Afghan security forces. “It really boils down to leadership.”
Four months ago, Enayatullah, a 35-year-old soldier based in Kabul, traded in his $350-a-month salary to flip burgers at a high school cafeteria. Trained as a wrestler, he had been a member of a unit whose soldiers played for the army’s sports teams. When a new commander arrived and cut the daily food stipend and sent the soldiers on more missions to Wardak province, which is far more dangerous than Kabul, Enayatullah grew disgruntled. He quit, along with eight of his friends and fellow soldiers, he said.
“He made us all very disappointed,” Enayatullah said of the new commander. “I was happy with my profession. If they offered us what we had before, then we would be happy to go back.”
At one point this summer, the pace of desertions climbed to an annualized rate of 35 percent, though it has since declined.
NATO’s training command has developed an extensive plan to attempt to lower attrition further, saying an acceptable goal would be 1.4 percent per month — or about 17 percent a year. July’s attrition rate was 2.2 percent.
“If we’re in the same situation in 3.5 years” — when Afghans are scheduled to be in charge of their security — “then we have a problem,” said Canadian Maj. Gen. D. Michael Day, a deputy commander in NATO’s training mission in Kabul.