The young boy does not say a word. His eyes water as he turns away, staring out the window or at the mud walls of his family home in Dasht-e-Qala, in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar province. Just across the river and over the hills lie Tajikistan and the vast expanse of Central Asia.
Abdul Basit has seen what no 7-year-old should see. He saw the dead body of his father Yoldash, an Afghan police officer, who was chopped up into six pieces by the Taliban and left to rot in the sun for nearly 30 days in western Farah province. The Afghan government did not even send a search or rescue mission for him. When Basit and his uncle Gul-Murad finally arrived to pick up the corpse, Yoldash’s two hands and half of his torso were missing.
Though the manner of his death is particularly brutal, Yoldash’s story is not uncommon among the Afghan security forces, which, as of June, have taken full lead of the country’s security ahead of the U.S. and its international coalition’s 2014 drawdown. Families of many Afghan security personnel who have fallen in the line of duty report neglect by the political leadership in Kabul. On average, 10 Afghan soldiers are killed every 24 hours in Afghanistan, and there is a high attrition rate, with many deserting the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces.
There is no clear data documenting Kabul’s neglect of those slain, but Afghan government officials admit in private that it risks becoming a bigger problem. The anecdotes are legion. Families of dead soldiers, who come from some of the poorest communities in one of the world’s most impoverished countries, usually have to collect their own dead, often at enormous expense. This systemic disregard for the dead not only impacts the morale of a force Washington has pinned its exit hopes on, but also underscores the growing divide between Afghanistan’s struggling, suffering rank and file and political elites increasingly inured from the realities of the battlefield.
Yoldash belonged to a landless family. When he was a child, his father ran a grocery store in their village. Later, Yoldash worked at a mechanic shop, but as his own family grew large — by the age of 35, he had fathered seven children — he enlisted with the Afghan police three years ago. For a monthly salary of roughly $200, he was deployed to the western province of Farah. There, he cooked for his unit and would only return home for about two weeks every six months. The last time he came home was June.
“He was hesitant to go back,” says his brother Gul-Murad, who has dark blond hair and a scruffy beard. “But he owed someone about $500, and there were no jobs here at home. He said he would work to pay back the money and then he will come home.”
Two days after his return to Farah in June, Yoldash went to fetch water from a stream about 300 m from his outpost. There, he was ambushed by the Taliban. The local police commanders did next to nothing to retrieve the man who had cooked their meals for them for three years, says Gul-Murad, who was informed two weeks after the incident by a fellow villager also serving in Yoldash’s unit.
So Gul-Murad took 7-year-old Basit with him — “if [the Taliban] are keeping Yoldash alive, they will show mercy for the sake of this child,” Gul-Murad explained — and they set out on the long journey to the other end of the country. They took a bus to Kabul, from where they flew to the western province of Herat, and then drove to Farah — all in all, over 1,500 km in distance.
When the two arrived in Farah, Yoldash’s unit had no further updates for Gul-Murad than what he had learned from the villager on the phone. So he continued on, into the village next to the outpost heavily dominated by the Taliban, and asked locals for help in locating his brother — dead or alive.
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A village elder initiated contact with the local Taliban, who called back with news early in the evening. Yes, they had ambushed Yoldash, they reported. He was killed the day he was arrested, and his body should be by a mountain ridge not far from where he was found by the Taliban.
“When we arrived at the place they told us, we found bones. Just bones,” Gul-Murad says. “His throat was slit. His two hands and half of his torso were missing.”
Gul-Murad collected the pieces in his shawl and brought them back to the outpost, where he was given an ammunition box to carry the bones. The unit captain, who should have been in charge of arranging air transport for the corpse, simply told him “you know where the bus station is — go get yourself a ticket.” After difficulties at the bus station, Gul-Murad opted to transport his brother’s remains by air. The trip to Farah and back cost Gul-Murad and Basit $1,200 — about six months’ worth of Yoldash’s salary when he was alive.
Adela Raz, a spokeswoman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was unable to comment on the specific case, but told TIME of her government’s policy: “There are specific instructions from the President to the military institutions about delivering the coffins of those who die in line of duty with utmost respect and care to their families.”
But the reality is that such instructions rarely translate into action. Two of Yoldash’s immediate commanders were arrested and taken to the attorney general’s office for questioning on charges of neglect — only after a social-media campaign by an opposition leader on behalf of the slain soldier spurred the government into face-saving action. Local officials in Farah could not be reached for comment on whether the commanders are still in detention.
Nearly 12 years into the war, the mission for the Americans and their international allies (operating in a joint coalition known as ISAF) has shifted: the coalition forces mostly stay out of the field, letting Afghan soldiers assume the brunt of the fighting. Western officials hail the security transition as a success on the grounds that ISAF casualties have reduced significantly. June, the bloodiest month for them this year, saw 27 soldiers killed. But on the Afghan side, about 300 soldiers died in the same period — a reported 22% increase from the same month last year. This, combined with a monthly attrition rate of over 3% — British officials report the rate of recruits leaving the Afghan army is around 63,000 every year, or more than a third of the current size of the force — paints a gloomy picture.
“The reason for the lack of fighting spirit and for the high attrition is that the soldiers are not taken care of,” says retired army general Atiqullah Amarkhel. “The system is so deep in corruption — it can’t even take care of those protecting its survival.”
A senior official in eastern Afghanistan told me a few months ago that when a police officer dies in his area, no one from the local leadership attends his funeral. Not even his superiors. But if a local Taliban fighter is killed, elders — including members of the provincial High Peace Council, the local branch of a government body tasked with pursuing talks with the Taliban — sometimes flock to the funeral. It doesn’t bode well for the morale of government personnel.
Yet even the Taliban leadership, once heavily involved on the front lines, now mostly keeps to its sanctuaries as its young foot soldiers maintain the fight. While high-level peace talks — in the oil-rich state of Qatar, as well as European capitals — have failed to gain momentum, the violence has only escalated on the ground. The seasonal closing of Pakistani madrasahs — a fertile breeding ground for the Taliban’s ranks — due to summer heat, is thought to be a key reason for the escalation.
Countless young men on both sides still seem to have no other option but to risk — and lose — their lives in Afghanistan’s grinding conflict. According to the World Bank, poverty remains “stubbornly high” in Afghanistan, with 36% of the country beneath the poverty line. For Afghanistan’s rural poor — men like Yoldash — life appears as cheap as it was in the 1990s, at the height of the bloody Afghan civil war, which the poet Sami Hamed aptly summed up with this verse, translated from Dari:
Two leaders, asleep in two beds
Two soldiers, tired in two trenches
Two leaders, smile behind the peace table
Two flags on the graves of the two soldiers.
I followed Basit and Gul-Murad to the cemetery as they offered a prayer. As is customary, Basit crouched low, cupping his hands. In front of him, his father’s grave was not even marked by a headstone or a flag. Just a pile of dirt, in a scorching desert.