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the afghan mission

Afghan National Army soldiers attend a ceremony to hand over security control in the city of Charikar in Parwan province on Dec. 1, 2011.Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The current rate at which Afghan soldiers walk away from their jobs, and other kinds of attrition from the army, will make it difficult to adequately build up the force before international troops leave the country in 2014, a top general says.

"Before the end of the NATO mission we really do need to get a grip on attrition," said Major-General Michael Day, Canada's senior commander in Afghanistan, speaking by telephone from Kabul.

Military trainers are scrambling to build the Afghan National Army into a force that can stop the Taliban and prevent anarchy after foreign troops hand over responsibility for security.

Canada took on one of the toughest jobs during the fighting stage of the mission, on the front lines in Kandahar. Now Canadian soldiers have become central to the next "mission impossible" – bulking up the army.

For the 950 Canadian trainers deployed to Afghanistan in the coming years, it's not so much a matter of attracting more recruits, but rather a challenge of stemming the number of Afghan soldiers who simply quit.

"Building this army is like pouring water in a sieve," said Chris Mason, a senior research fellow at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who helped with the establishment of the Afghan army while serving as a U.S. diplomat in the country. "By their own numbers, they are losing almost half the army to attrition every 12 months."

The man most responsible for solving that problem is Gen. Day, whose experience in Afghanistan spans a decade and who now serves as deputy commanding general of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTMA). It's hard to understate the importance of his task; while the police and irregular forces are widely seen as a shambles – or even a detriment to stability – the Afghan army stands as the best hope for the Kabul government's survival.

The force had a listed strength of 173,000 personnel in October and must reach 195,000 deployed soldiers by the end of 2013, according to military plans.

Deaths, injuries and incapacitations account for only a minority of the losses. The much bigger problem is Afghan soldiers giving up the fight. An estimated 30 to 40 per cent of personnel do not re-enlist at the end of their three-year contracts. On top of that, the attrition rate averaged 32 per cent annually over the 12 months that ended in November. The biggest chunk of that figure represents soldiers abandoning their posts.

A briefing document from Gen. Day's headquarters shows that the attrition rate increased 26 per cent compared with the previous year, and the rates in both years were significantly above target levels.

Some observers suggest the real figures could be even worse, since the international staff at NTMA often depend on the local Afghan authorities to count their own ranks. Even if they are honest and avoid the temptation to inflate the payroll, Afghan officers assigned to tabulate personnel figures sometimes lack basic math skills. One educated guess at the true size of the Afghan army puts the force at perhaps 100,000 personnel on duty.

"Everyone worried that there were problems with numbers," said a former official who served at the training headquarters in Kabul. There was never any sign of fraudulent statistics, he said, but the foreign troops lacked the capacity to audit their Afghan counterparts. "For much of 2010, NTMA was sorely under-strength and lacked the assets to double-check every field report."

For his part, Gen. Day says he has confidence in the troop numbers and his ability to improve them. "We run those numbers pretty hard," he said.

The Canadian commander described a list of recent adjustments designed to improve the morale and quality of life of Afghan soldiers. Their salary, vacation, cafeterias and sleeping quarters have all been improved. Leadership methods have been changed, and soldiers now carry more-modern weapons.

But there's a limit to how much money can be spent on such improvements.

The World Bank predicts Afghanistan will develop a mining industry and generate enough of its own revenue to reach a position where its annual budget shortfall is about $7.2-billion, or 25 per cent of gross domestic product, within about a decade. That's a serious gap, but the intervening years could be even more difficult as transition to local responsibility for security pushes the shortfall to more than 40 per cent of GDP in 2014 – with the payroll and maintenance of Afghan forces accounting for more than half of the budget crunch.

With attrition rates running at current levels, the financial picture looks even darker. Based on NTMA averages from November, 2010, to October, 2011, the army gains 4,272 soldiers a month but loses another 3,136, leaving a net increase of just 1,136.

A veteran U.S. intelligence analyst reviewed those figures and calculated that the turnover costs a staggering amount of money. "Each soldier actually added to the number of the ANA force will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and equip," the analyst said.

Another persistent issue is the Afghan army's ethnic makeup. If the ANA is to serve as the backbone of a government facing potential war between southern Pashtun groups and the other ethnicities from the north, the force needs to dramatically improve recruiting in the south. Less than 4 per cent of recruits were counted as southern Pashtuns until NATO changed its counting methods in June in an effort to label tribes with ancestry in the south as "southern Pashtuns." But the relabelling effort in some cases counted as "southern" tribes that had migrated north more than a century earlier.

Some analysts say NATO commanders appear to grasp such problems more clearly than they have in previous years, however, and Gen. Day himself says the job will be far from easy.

"There's a lot of water to be carried before we can declare success," the commander said.