A bloody weekend during which more than 20 Afghan troops were killed by bombs across the country underscored an alarming trend: Amid the hopeful pronouncements of reduced violence in Afghanistan and lower coalition casualties, the Afghan National Security Forces are taking staggering losses, threatening recruitment and bringing into question the Afghan security forces’ readiness to face an entrenched insurgency on their own at a time when their Western backers are rapidly pulling out of the country.
Nearly as many Afghan troops were killed in 2012 as the number of American troops killed in the entire 11-year war.
NATO troop deaths are decreasing, as many countries continue withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, handing more responsibility to Afghan forces. But as Afghan troops have been pushed out on their own, often without the weaponry or bomb-detecting technology of NATO forces, they have been bearing the brunt of the war’s violence. On Saturday, at least 21 policemen were killed by bombs in Kunduz, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Farah provinces.
Afghan officials said numbers for the year are incomplete, but between the army and national police, at least 2,071 troops were killed in 2012, with more than double that number injured, as compared to 2,177 U.S. servicemembers killed in the entire war, according to independent website iCasualties.
For Western nations, whose publics have long been weary of an effort that seems to have locked into a stalemate, such numbers would be untenable. Even for Afghans, accustomed to nearly constant war over the past three decades, losing the equivalent of a brigade’s worth of troops each year to death and injury is taking a toll.
“We cannot say the casualties don’t have an impact [on recruitment],” Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.
The coalition’s top spokesman, Gen. Gunter Katz, pointed to the high casualty rate among Afghan forces as a consequence of transition to Afghan control of the country.
“Despite those high numbers there must be no doubt that transition will be carried on and will be successful and there must be no doubt the Afghan National Security Forces will take on security responsibility by the end of 2014,” Katz said.
In recent months, Afghan troops have been dying at a rate of more than 300 per month, according to Azimi, a rate which would equal an entire brigade over the course of a year. In comparison, coalition casualties were down in 2012, with 402 killed, a nearly 30 percent drop from 2011, according to iCasualties.org. Roadside bombs are still the biggest killer and Afghan forces lack the armored vehicles, training and bomb-detecting technology of their Western counterparts.
The spike in casualties comes at a time when Afghan units can still rely on NATO troops for backup and, most importantly, air power assets likely to diminish over the next two years, as international militaries withdraw ahead of the Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for all combat troops to leave Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s security forces are still dependent on international troops for air support — a situation unlikely to improve anytime soon with the recent scrapping of the entire fleet of Afghan C-27A cargo planes due to lack of spare parts. Afghan troops lack intelligence capabilities, artillery and effective countermeasures against roadside bombs, by far the biggest killer of Afghan soldiers, Azimi said.
“Our ground forces don’t have support,” he said.
In a country beset by joblessness, where most recruits join the military for a paycheck rather than patriotism, the increasing danger of military service is driving some out of the ranks. The Afghan security forces are currently close to their goal of 350,000 troops, but maintaining that is a challenge with a turnover rate of around one-third of the force annually.
The high casualty rate is also eroding morale and with troops whose loyalty could change if they see the Afghan security forces losing to insurgents, said Ahmad Shaeer Anil, executive director of the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organization. Insurgents can rely on continued support from Pakistan and other regional powers, and Afghan troops will need assurances that they can rely on Western nations not only for backup but also to ensure the government they’re fighting for has the resources to stay in power.
“We don’t know how far [their] commitment is going to last because we have economic problems and they are [serving] for economic reasons,” Anil said. “They can easily be bought.”
Compounding the increasing danger of the job, the cronyism that runs rampant through the Afghan government can have life or death consequences in the military, where the well-connected often get cushy postings in safe districts while their less fortunate comrades serve in insurgent-plagued regions.
After six years with the Afghan National Police, Din Mohammad said he had seen enough buddies get killed and maimed. He quit six weeks ago to open a fruit shop in Jalalabad after serving in some of Nangarhar province’s most dangerous districts and watching other troops with important friends avoid the front lines.
“You are always treated as a step child,” he said. “If you are supported by a powerful person you will be deployed to a safe area, but if you are not powerful, they will send you everywhere.”
Din said he originally joined the police because he couldn’t find work and wanted to do something for his country after spending much of his childhood in a Pakistani refugee camp. Recently his unit fell victim to multiple ambushes and roadside bombs and on several occasions he carried dead or injured friends off the battlefield.
“The job was too dangerous,” he said.
Shah Zaman knows well the perils of service in the Afghan military. In 2007, while serving as a major in Kandahar, an explosives-laden van blew up near him, blowing off his left leg and mangling his arm. He had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for surgery in Pakistan to save his arm, a procedure too advanced for the Afghan doctors to whom the army sent him.
He still counts many current and former soldiers as friends and says the poor treatment of injured soldiers is driving qualified recruits from the ranks, especially as casualties mount.
“If I don’t fight on the front lines, Karzai can’t rule here,” Zaman said. “We are the people making it possible for them so when you see this type of discouragement it leads to a failed Afghan National Army.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.