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Lack of Funds Threatens Afghan Military Dream - 2002-04-23

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is preparing to train a second group of recruits for a new national army. The training program, which first began late February, under international peacekeepers, represents the interim government's ambitious dream to mold Afghans from a variety of ethnic groups into a unified fighting force. But lack of funding for the army is threatening to derail the effort.

Three months ago, 23-year-old Malfuzullah Tawhedi was a tailor in his village in the northern province, Badahkshan. Today, he is a professional guard in Kabul, part of an elite corps of guards at the old Soviet military base, where he recently underwent six weeks of intense training.

"They taught me many things, he says. For example, he now knows how to check and protect his area, how to clear land mines and how to apprehend suspects and disarm prisoners.

Mr. Tawhedi shows an identification card that says he is a member of the newly-formed Afghan National Guard. He graduated three weeks ago with 600 other recruits in a grand ceremony attended by high-ranking military and government leaders, including interim chairman, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai declared that the graduation signaled a small but important beginning for a country that has not had a national army for a decade.

Afghanistan's new leaders envision a fighting force, which, over the next five to ten years, could number up to 100,000. It would have modern weapons and loyalty to that other part of the Afghan dream, a democratically-elected, multi-ethnic government. It is hoped that, by then, the era of feuding warlords and militias will be history.

But cracks are already starting to appear in the plans for a unified army.

The 600 soldiers trained so far have not been paid in three months and disillusionment is rapidly setting in. Some 60 soldiers are reported to have deserted in the past few weeks and the numbers could soon go higher. Mr. Tawhedi complains the government is failing to meet even their most basic needs.

He says he has no money to buy food, so he relies on military food rations the Americans hand out at the base from time to time. But usually he gets nothing to eat but bread and tea. He admits he, too, wants to leave the army and go back to his home in Badahkshan.

The government says it is trying to find a solution to the problem. But it simply does not have enough money to pay the soldiers' salaries, right now. The administration had been counting on donor nations to fund most of the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars required to build a credible force. But of the $4.5 billion initially pledged at a donor conference in Tokyo in January for Afghan reconstruction, nothing was set aside for security.

Earlier this month, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, pleaded with international donors to make the funding of a national security force a priority. But donor nations have been reluctant to release money to a government that has not yet implemented adequate measures to keep track of spending.

In the capital, Kabul, international peacekeepers known as ISAF say a compromise must be reached soon to keep desperate Afghan soldiers from returning to a life of crime. Simon Browne, the commander of the British peacekeeping unit, the First Royal Anglian Regiment, notes the men being recruited to provide security are often times the main cause of security problems.

"One of the major sources of crime are the army, itself. They haven't been paid, in many cases, for years," he said. "I have files of evidence suggesting that these people are committing petty crime, do nothing to stop petty crime, or are in some way complicit in petty crime."

Many western nations, including the United States, are eager to build a credible army, quickly. Handing over peacekeeping and security duties to a national army will allow countries to pull their soldiers out of Afghanistan and avoid a long-term military presence.

But reports of desertion this early in the training phase are adding a large dose of uncertainty to the entire effort. It is a problem that can only be solved with money. But with so many problems that need immediate attention in Afghanistan, it is unclear if and when the money for the soldiers will arrive.