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Afghan Army struggles to recruit, keep competent soldiers

KABUL — The first thing Colonel Akbar Stanikzai does when he interviews recruits for the Afghan National Army is take their cellphones.

He checks to see if the ringtones are Taliban campaign tunes, if the screen savers show the white Taliban flag on a black background, or if the phone memory includes any insurgent beheading videos.

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Often enough they flunk that first test, but that hardly means they will not qualify to join their country’s ­manpower-hungry military. Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan army is so plagued with desertions and low reenlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.

The attrition strikes at the core of America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.

The Afghan deserters complain of corruption among their officers, poor food and equipment, indifferent medical care, and, probably most troublingly, a lack of belief in the army’s ability to fight the insurgents after the US military withdraws.

On top of that, recruits now undergo tougher vetting because of concerns that enemy infiltration of the military is contributing to a wave of attacks on international forces.

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