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.
U.S. officers here said the M-16 is lighter and more accurate, and is highly effective at long distances if properly cleaned and maintained. Afghan officers said they understand the advantages of the M-16, but many soldiers at the training camp grumbled that it is harder to keep clean and to aim, and is less durable.
"They tell us it is better than the AK, but it's just a piece of plastic that can break down after a few rounds," said Abdul, 24, a trainee from Helmand province, as his buddies nodded in agreement. "It is not good for conditions in Afghanistan. Do they really want us to stop in the middle of a fight to clean our weapons?"
The most common complaints, however, were more personal. Many recruits said they missed their families and resented being confined to the base and having their cellphones confiscated during the six-week basic training course. Others groused about the poor quality of the food at the chow hall and the boots they had been issued.
Most of the men expressed pride in the Afghan army's mission of building a multiethnic, national fighting force to replace the country's traditional warring militias. But it was clear that some felt uncomfortable being trained to fight other Afghans, and officers said some recruits pretended to shoot poorly to avoid being sent south, where the war against the Taliban is most intense.
Another obstacle to quickly building the new army is that many recruits are illiterate. Since they cannot read manuals, officers must explain everything orally. During the recent barbed-wire drill, trainers shouted constantly in both national dialects, repeating over and over how the men should hold their guns, keep low and cover their partners with fire.
The training program offers classes in reading and writing and, for small groups of advanced students and officers, English. On a recent afternoon, captains, majors and a colonel or two struggled to follow basic reading exercises, answering such questions as "Do you feel happy or sad?" and "Is the pencil long or short?" But the older students said they were determined to master their subject.
"English is the language of knowledge, the language that can connect us with the world," said Maj. Abdul Latif, 35, an executive officer in a southern battalion. "I have a heavy responsibility now. I want to be able to learn on the Internet, to communicate better with our mentors, to go for courses in foreign countries. English is the key to making a modern army."
As with everything else in this accelerated program, the main enemy is time. The army is graduating a new batch of about 1,200 men from basic training every few weeks, while smaller groups move on to advanced combat training. Young Afghans who have barely learned to shoot and salute are being sent out to fight a seasoned guerrilla force that lacks both rules and scruples.
U.S. mentors said they are generally pleased with the attitude of the new volunteers, especially the multiethnic bonds and national orientation they develop in training. The harder part, they said, is to forge a professional fighting force from a pool of eager but raw recruits, steeped in the lore of rural guerrillas who defeated successive modern empires.
"These men are perfectly willing to fight. The challenge is to harness that will into discipline and control," said U.S. Army Col. Edward Stein, a senior adviser to the Afghan army's Kabul-area forces. "The Afghan way is to get out there and execute attacks. We tell them two-thirds of combat success is in the preparation. That takes a lot of hard work and patience, on everyone's part."