U.S. makes small strides in getting Afghan army fighting fit, but hurdles remain

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

KABUL -- As part of President Obama's plan to dramatically increase the size of the Afghan National Army, the first contingent of additional U.S. troops has arrived and begun taking over the training of new Afghan recruits, hoping to build up the local force to 134,000 battle-ready soldiers in 10 months.

At the Afghan army's dusty and sprawling training camp on the outskirts of the capital, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., are busy showing Afghan recruits the proper way to hold their weapons, how to man a checkpoint, and the best technique for entering and searching a building.

"For basic trainees, they're disciplined," Capt. David Gregory, a native of Richmond, said while watching a training exercise. "It's everything you can hope for from basic-training soldiers."

But the Afghan army has a long way to go if Obama is to meet his stated goal of beginning a withdrawal of U.S. forces in July.

At the moment, American military officers say, the Afghan army numbers about 102,000, which means 32,000 soldiers have to be added over the next 10 months. Recruitment levels are high -- the pace nearly doubled in December, mainly because the United States doubled the pay for new Afghan soldiers to $140 a month, with a bonus if they serve in volatile provinces such as Helmand.

That amount, American officials said, is comparable with what the Taliban is paying its recruits.

The U.S. military is also experimenting with electronic payment and mobile banking -- allowing Afghan forces to be paid and to transfer funds through their mobile phones -- to avoid the problem of soldiers leaving their posts on payday to take cash back to their families.

Because of the pay increase, officials said, 4,000 Afghan recruits are waiting in the pipeline, without enough trainers to take them in. As more American troops arrive, the United States hopes to clear the backlog.

The biggest problem among recruits during their eight-week basic training course is illiteracy.

Only about 14 percent of the new recruits are literate, leaving most unable to read simple instructions for a weapon, a map or a road sign. In addition to classes in marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat, the training program includes courses in basic literacy.

"Just getting them to read at the third-grade level is our goal," said Marine Col. Gregory T. Breazile, a spokesman for Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the commander in charge of training Afghan forces.

"Many of them never had electricity in their homes. They never had running water. They never had toilets. You've got to put pictures in the toilets -- don't stand on it, sit on it."

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