Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Better pay boosts morale in Afghan army
Amal is in the final weeks of his basic training and says he dreams of bringing peace and stability to his war-ravaged country as part of a professional Afghan National Army.
He is one of 7,000 recruits from across Afghanistan undergoing eight weeks of training at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC), one of the focal points of the new strategy for defeating a virulent Taliban insurgency.
The 21-year-old comes from southern Kandahar province, one of the most violent, and says he joined the army to make a difference.
"I want to eliminate our enemies, I don't care who they are, Taliban or whatever," he told AFP during a break from ambush drill.
"I want to serve my country because when security is good, we can rebuild our country, the children can go to school, people can have normal lives."
Behind him, this patch of the 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) occupied by the KMTC looks like many southern Afghan battlegrounds -- beige, barren and dusty -- as hundreds of recruits drop to their bellies to practise marksmanship.
Over the next hill, a few hundred more are being taught to search houses, set up checkpoints and road blocks, throw hand grenades and fire machine-guns.
Elsewhere on the campus -- formerly the Afghan Military Academy -- there are mass graves of victims of the communist regime of the seventies, and carcasses of destroyed Soviet tanks occupy their own graveyard.
Turnover at KMTC is 1,400 recruits every two weeks -- with 7,000 constantly in training -- as the Afghan government and its Western supporters attempt to extrude an army from the mostly illiterate and often drug-addicted pool of young men needing jobs.
US President Barack Obama, General Stanley McChrystal, who commands US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai say they are determined the country will take responsiblity for security within five years.
To make that wish come true, they plan to hit a benchmark of 400,000 security forces -- army and police -- within 18 months.
There are nearly 100,000 troops in the Afghan army, which is projected to grow to 136,000 next year. Karzai allies are calling for up to 240,000 soldiers.
These ambitious figures have sown concerns that recruits will be taken on to fit the quantity, not quality, requirements of a government in a hurry to finally prove that it is up to the job.
Experts warn the nation lacks literate young men, veterans with leadership skills, facilities for training, and money for weapons.
With almost 40,000 more troops due to arrive in Afghanistan from the US and its NATO allies during 2010, Western leaders are eager to show Afghan forces are making enough progress for them to start thinking about withdrawal.
Western public opinion has turned against continued commitment to Afghanistan, as voters grow weary of a rising death toll in a far away war.
General Egon Ramms, a German commander in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, said last month that of 94,000 Afghan soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected, and an estimated 15 percent of the armed forces are drug addicts.
In an effort to retain and attract recruits, the Afghan government recently announced a 33 percent pay rise for soldiers and police.
Officers at the KMTC said the pay rise, bringing average salaries up to around 200 dollars a month, is already making a difference.
"Morale has certainly had a boost since the pay rise," said Major Mahhoobullah, chief of staff and acting commander at KMTC.
"We are a volunteer army so the pay rise has made a difference to retention of recruits, they are much happier," he said, adding that applications from new recruits also leapt after the salary increase.
Problems of drug addiction were also being dealt with, he said, with screening and treatment.
The main problem for the infant Afghan National Army he said, was "the low quality of the boots, they only last a month".