Afghan and NATO officials have long tried to entice young men in the heavily Pashtun south — the Taliban heartland — to join the Afghan Army. They have seen few results for their efforts.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Every morning, jobless young men gather by the hundreds at the busy central square here in this southern city, desperate for whatever work they can find. In other places, this would be an army recruiter’s dream. Not so in Kandahar.
Many of the men here have brothers and cousins in the insurgency, or are former fighters themselves. Others fear what would happen to them or their families if they joined the Afghan Army.
“I don’t want to be killed by the Taliban,” Janan, 30, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said as he jostled with the crowd under a scorching sun.
Afghan and NATO officials have long struggled to entice young men in the heavily Pashtun south — the Taliban heartland — to join the Afghan Army. Despite years of efforts, an analysis of recruitment patterns by The New York Times shows that the number of them joining the army remains relatively minuscule, reflecting a deep and lingering fear of the insurgents, or sympathy for them, as well as doubts about the stability and integrity of the central government in Kabul, the capital.
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The influx of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, who have pushed the Taliban back in much of the south, has done little to ease those concerns or to lift recruitment. In some places, the numbers of southern Pashtun recruits are actually shrinking, causing an overall decline of nearly 30 percent from a year ago.
As the deadline looms for the withdrawal of most foreign forces in 2014, the need to enlist more southern Pashtuns is pressing if Afghanistan is to have a national army that resembles the ethnic and geographic makeup of the country.
It is no small concern. The absence of southern Pashtuns reinforces the impression here that the army is largely a northern institution — to be used against them — and what Afghan and Western officials worry is a dangerous division of the country.
The predominantly Pashtun southern and southeastern provinces — Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul, Paktika and Ghazni — make up about 17 percent of Afghanistan’s total population, yet they contributed just 1.5 percent of the soldiers recruited since 2009.
Kandahar and Helmand more than doubled their number of recruits last year from the previous year. However, officials worry that the recent erosion of security in Kandahar City could reverse the gains.
The two provinces are home to nearly 2 million people. Yet since 2009 they have contributed fewer than 1,200 soldiers to the army, less than 1 percent of the nearly 173,000 enlistees in that period.
By comparison, Kunduz, a northern province of about 900,000 people, enlisted more than 16,500 recruits.
Oruzgan, a province of more than 300,000 residents, had 14 recruits all of last year.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of recruits come from provinces in the north and northeast, where the insurgency is weaker.
While the overall representation of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, in the army is equitable — they make up about 42 percent of the population and roughly the same percentage of the army — the vast majority come from a few northeastern provinces. More than a third come from Nangarhar province alone.
Trying to lure more southern Pashtuns, Ministry of Defense officials have made it easier for them to qualify for officer candidate school and have assigned two southern Pashtun generals to the region to focus on recruiting.
“Their job is to reach out to their communities and explain why it’s not only honorable, but it’s the right thing to do to join the army and to send your sons to join the army,” said Maj. Gen. D. Michael Day, the Canadian Army officer in charge of military training for NATO. “Because unless the elders, unless some recognized authority figure says this is what we should be doing, it doesn’t get done.”
An assassination campaign in the south has hampered those efforts. In the past two years, suicide bombers and armed men on motorcycles have struck down dozens of tribal elders sympathetic to the government.
“People are afraid,” said Abdul Ghani, deputy director of the Kandahar army recruiting center. “When we have assassinations and bombings every day like we have now, it really affects recruiting.”
The center sends teams of recruiters into the city and outlying districts every day armed with leaflets and posters.
The increase in U.S. troops has made it easier for the teams to expand into more villages. Still, about half of the province’s 16 districts remain cut off, Ghani said.
The recruiters themselves live under constant threat. Last year, a group of men beat a recruiter after he spoke to young people in a city bazaar.
So far, though, most have been lucky. They have not had the kind of attack like the suicide bombing in March that killed 36 people at recruiting center in Kunduz.
Recruiters must also compete with drug lords: Kandahar and Helmand provinces are the country’s largest producers of opium, and recruiting, desertion and even violence fluctuate with the poppy harvest.
Where the recruiters have had the most difficulty is in persuading local mullahs, Muslim religious leaders, to join in the effort.
“One word from a mullah is worth a thousand words from me,” Ghani said. But, he added, the mullahs “are not helping us right now, because they are afraid.”
“They know if they preach for two or three days advocating for us, their heads will be cut off.”
In interviews with several mullahs in and around Kandahar, fear was evident in their voices. Many simply refused to discuss recruiting.
Day is hopeful that the security improvements gained in the past eight months will gradually begin paying more dividends in the months ahead as the southern population becomes more tolerant of NATO and Afghan forces.