The Guardian reports: From about 8.30pm until well after midnight, the dark blue sky above Babaji lit up, as rockets and flares crisscrossed above this cluster of villages close to Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
At a mud fortress beyond a river bridge painted in the tricolours of the Afghan flag, 24 members of the Afghan border police dug in. They were not supposed to be there.
“We were not trained to fight on the front line,” said Cpt Ghulam Wali Afghan, the commander, when the Guardian visited the post.
As their name suggests, Wali Afghan’s men are meant to protect Afghanistan’s porous border, where smugglers cross with copious drugs, weapons and people.
But seven months ago, the captain and 122 other ABP men were relocated to Babaji, some 300km from the frontier with Pakistan in an effort to bolster the defence against the Taliban, who continue to capture territory the international coalition spent years getting little more than a slippery grip on.
On their first day on the front line, three border police were killed, said Raz Mohammad, a soldier stationed in Babaji. “For two months, we had trouble getting to know the area,” he said.
The police eventually repelled the Taliban assault. But with the calm of the poppy harvest over, and the fighting season just beginning, it is unlikely that the ABP officers will return to the border anytime soon.
With an estimated 25,000 troops officially based in Helmand, the government should have enough muscle to confront the Taliban.
The problem is many of those troops don’t exist.
Across Afghanistan, lists of troops and police officers are filled with fake names, or the names of men killed in the fighting, but not officially declared dead. Captain Wali and his men are in Babaji to fill the void of these “ghost soldiers”.
A recent investigation by Helmand’s provincial council found that approximately 40% of enlisted troops did not exist. The authors of an analysis commissioned by the Afghan government – and obtained by the Guardian – said the share might be even higher. [Continue reading…]