With U.S. and British Backing, Afghan Army Steps Up Training to Battle Taliban

U.S. and NATO troops progress in their ambitious campaign to increase Afghanistan's national army and prepare new troops to defend their country against insurgents.
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 2, 2009

KABUL -- On a bleak and sweltering plain littered with rusty Soviet tanks, pairs of grimacing military recruits crawled beneath a barbed-wire net one recent morning, dragging their rifles through the dust. Two trainers followed, shouting at them to move faster and stooping to correct their movements.

"You have to learn this now. I am not going to be out there in the battle with you," Master Sgt. Wahidullah told his new batch of 200 soldiers, each nervously waiting his turn. "Crawl with the opposite hand and foot. Don't point the gun at your chin. Don't move until the other man is covered. Don't touch the barbed wire, because it may be rigged to kill you."

The training session was part of an ambitious campaign, backed by the United States and Britain, to increase the Afghan National Army's ranks from 88,000 to 134,000 men in the next three years. The goal is to push several thousand newly minted troops and officers into the battle against Taliban insurgents every month while ultimately enabling Afghans to take over their own defense.

The expansion is critical to U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 foreign troops are deployed to fight the insurgency. As casualties mount, with a record 75 foreign troops killed in July, public impatience is growing in Europe and in the United States, and pressure is increasing to "Afghanize" the war effort.

It is a tall order, complicated by such problems as high illiteracy rates, homesickness among recruits from distant provinces, a recent unpopular switch from Soviet to U.S. combat rifles and a reluctance among some new troops to fight insurgents who are fellow Afghans and Muslims.

Still, since the push started last year, the ranks of recruits have swelled steadily and the desertion rate has dropped from a high of up to 40 percent in past years to less than 20 percent; U.S. officials said it is below 5 percent. That is attributable partly to a major boost in soldiers' wages to $120 per month (officers' salaries start at $210) and partly to the Afghan army's growing prestige.

"This country needs young men like you to serve, and nobody is forcing you to be here," Lt. Col. Farid Parwan told recruits in an early morning pep talk at the Kabul Military Training Center. The complex of modern dorms, classrooms, a mosque and a huge chow hall, was built on a former Soviet base just outside the capital.

"You are lucky because the government is feeding you, training you and paying you well," he continued. "Here you need to obey the rules, but please do not try to run away. Dear brothers, this is a great chance for you, the sons of Afghanistan, to defend our country and keep it safe."

One sign of progress is that most officers and sergeants who train and drill the men daily are Afghan. Until about a year ago, most were American or British; now Western advisers stationed at an adjacent base stay in the background unless recruits are engaged in risky or unfamiliar exercises that involve live ammunition.

At one firing range on a recent day, half a dozen British trainers kept close tabs on a group of new Afghan officers, brought straight from civilian life, as they shot at pop-up targets from standing, kneeling or prone positions. The trainers said some men were ambivalent about being taught by foreigners, especially those from countries that had been driven out of Afghanistan in the course of several colonial wars.

"These guys come from a warrior culture, and they all want to fight," said British Army Maj. William Wajerabek, shouting above the din of fire. "Mostly they are glad to have us here, but they also were brought up to believe that they heroically defeated us in battle three times. Some of them have the attitude that there is nothing we can teach them."

One recent source of friction has been the decision by the U.S. government, which funds most of the army's training and equipment, to replace Soviet-made Kalashnikov assault rifles, the standard Afghan weapon for the past 30 years, with American-made M-16s. Since February, Afghan troops have been required to train with the M-16.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company