Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Abdullah Mohammadi lost his two legs and an arm below the elbow in a ferocious battle with the Taliban. As a young soldier, he had been eager to fight for his country, but now he’s furious at a government he says ignores him and hasn’t paid his veteran’s pension in almost one year.

Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces, meant to be the bulwark against advancing Taliban insurgents, are rife with corruption, demoralized and struggling to keep territory. The government says the army can hold its own, but military experts warn of a tough fight ahead for poorly trained, ill-equipped troops whose loyalties waver between their country and local warlords.

By Sept. 11 at the latest, the remaining 2,300-3,500 U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will have left Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. Also leaving is the American air support that the Afghan military has relied on to stave off potentially game-changing Taliban assaults, ever since it took command of the war from the U.S. and NATO in 2014.

“Without U.S. military support, it is a matter of time before the Taliban consolidates its gains, particularly in the south, east and west,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, which tracks militant movements.

This week, some of the heaviest fighting since President Joe Biden announced the end to America’s ‘forever war’ took place in eastern Laghman province with the Taliban threatening the provincial capital of Mehtar Lam. Particularly worrisome going forward, police and army deserted several posts protecting the city, allowing Taliban to walk in and keep abandoned military equipment as their own.

At least half the country is believed to be contested ground, often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.

Within the Afghan army, soldiers complain of substandard equipment, even shoddy basic items like army boots that fall apart within weeks because corrupt contractors used inferior material. The Associated Press witnessed boots with gaping holes being worn, insufficient helmets available and weapons that often jammed.

At a police outpost seen by the AP earlier this month, eight men lived in a partially built bunker that looked big enough for only half that number. They had only a few rifles as they watched sentry from two turret-style posts on the outpost’s high brick walls. They overlook a busy road where the Taliban frequently attack security convoys.

The commander, who wore sandals, said the outpost is occasionally hit by rocket or gunfire and would have a hard time fending off a full-fledged attack.

“There’s no other option but peace,” he said, asking not to be identified because he did not have permission to allow the media into his compound.

Mohammadi, the veteran, was wounded six years ago in Zhari district in southern Kandahar province, once the spiritual heartland of the Taliban until their ouster in 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces.

He led a company of 18 men airlifted into battle in a grape field, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their nearest base. The fight went on all day and night until eventually the Taliban surrounded them.

For a year he recovered in hospital. He received two wooden legs and an artificial plastic hand. The legs are painful to wear and he can manage them only for 15 minutes at a time. It takes two people to help him get them on, and he sometimes pays a neighbor to help.

“I am proud of what I have sacrificed for this country. What I gave for my country I gave with pride,” he said.

But Mohammadi is fuming at the government. For years, his veteran’s pension, around 16,000 Afghanis ($200) a month, has been erratic, and for the past 11 months he hasn’t received it at all. “They tell me to wait,” he said.

Mohammadi says has had to borrow from family and friends. It wounds his pride, but it’s better than begging, he said.

Speaking to the AP, Defense Ministry’ Deputy Spokesman Fawad Aman promised to look into the complaint. He said that corruption, while it exists, is not widespread and efforts are being made to tackle it and that the spirit of the fighting force was high.

“With the withdrawal of United States forces there will be no security vacuum or gap in Afghanistan because our forces can defend Afghanistan independently,” he said.

Washington’s chief watchdog overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan, John Sopko, told a Congressional hearing in March that corruption is one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s security force and is fueling the insurgency.

The U.S is committed to pay $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s security forces. As of Dec. 31, 2020, Sopko said the U.S. has spent $88.3 billion to help the Afghan government provide security in Afghanistan — roughly 62% of all U.S. reconstruction funding.

Yet, according to Attiqullah Amarkhiel, the Afghan army of today is half as good as the army left by the former Soviet Union when it withdrew in 1989, ending its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.

Amarkhiel was major general in the 1989 Moscow-allied Afghan army and served in the post-Taliban government of President Hamid Karzai. He helped build the security forces following the Taliban’s fall in 2001.

The army of 1989 were professional educated soldiers, unlike the mostly uneducated post-Taliban force. Then the army numbered 150,000 troops, compared to the 300,000 today. “But then we had quality. Today we have quantity.”

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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