The general attributed the recruitment woes as much to the increasing violence as to a decrease in funding for outreach efforts, such as television advertisements.
“We used to gather about 350 or 400 people a month, now it’s about 150 a month,” said Abdul Qadeer, head of army recruitment in Kunduz Province, where the Taliban have twice seized the center of the provincial capital in recent years. “All the districts outside the city are under enemy influence, and they threaten the youth into not joining the army.”
Taliban pressure includes fines on families of soldiers, physical punishment of soldiers who return home, and even confiscation of land and homes.
“The Taliban tell the father of an army soldier to either call back your son, or give us a Kalashnikov rifle and 400,000 afghanis,” said Mujtaba Khan, head of army recruitment in Badakhshan Province, referring to a fine of about $6,000. “And when the son returns, he is beaten and locked up.”
Other officials said that the rising number of army casualties in gruesome, high-profile attacks over the past year was also affecting recruitment.
In one recent massacre in Kandahar Province, the Taliban nearly wiped out an entire army unit of 60 men. In April, insurgents drove into the army’s headquarters in the northern province of Balkh and killed at least 140 soldiers in a rampage that lasted several hours. In a March attack claimed by the Islamic State, militants barged into the military’s main hospital in Kabul, slaughtering dozens of soldiers who were being treated there.
While the Afghan government does not publicly disclose exact casualty figures, the coffins are still coming home to villages. In private, officials say on average 20 to 30 Afghan soldiers and police officers die every day as the violence intensifies.
“Before the attack on army corps in the north and the military hospital in Kabul our numbers were higher, but now recruitment is down,” said Abdul Maroof, in charge of army recruitment in Takhar Province. “Compared with previous years, I would say our recruitment is at about 50 percent less.”
When the new Afghan Army took its initial strides at the peak of the international presence, with the American-led NATO coalition of tens of thousands of soldiers and marines leading the way, most of the heavy fighting was concentrated in the south and parts of the southeast. The soldiers, however, largely came from the north, where jobs were few and the agricultural base was not enough to feed large families.
In recent years, the fighting has spread to the north and northeast of the country, even as the war in the south has intensified. Afghan forces lead the fight, with American help mostly limited to air support, training and advising.
The drop in recruitment is a major blow to a force that is suffering from drastic losses of men and territory. Some of the units struggled so much, losing men and equipment, that they had to be entirely rebuilt. The fighting has also laid bare the leadership woes of the Afghan forces, with many officers proving corrupt or inadequate to the new ways of fighting.
The Afghan Army is rolling out a program to retire hundreds of old generals and colonels clogging the top, in the hopes of promoting a new generation of commanders.
While many families relent under Taliban pressure and call their children back from the army, others resist — and pay the price.
Soon after the Taliban made major gains in Kunduz Province, they came for the Parwan family. The family lived on the outskirts of the city of Kunduz, and two of their sons were serving in the Afghan Army.
“They told us, ‘Either call your brothers and pull them out of the army, or we will take over your land,’” said Arash Parwan, 23.
The family relied on the combined salaries of the soldiers, and they made a calculation that farming the land alone could not sustain them. So they resisted the Taliban, instead deciding to flee to the city center.
“The Taliban took over our land and two houses,” Mr. Parwan said. “They toppled one of the houses, and turned the other into their base.”