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; A09

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."

The Americans are also trying to build a diverse Afghan army that reflects the country's ethnic makeup, and they have had some success in that endeavor.

The Afghan army is about 43 percent Pashtun, 32 percent Tajik, 12 percent Hazara and 10 percent Uzbek, with the rest made up of smaller ethnic groups, according to the U.S. military and an independent analysis by the International Crisis Group. That's roughly the same as the ethnic makeup of the population, although population numbers are at best estimates, because no census has been conducted here in decades.

The main problem, officials said, is geographic, not ethnic. The Pashtuns joining the army generally do not come from the heavily Pashtun areas of the south, such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is most concentrated.

Also, the senior officer corps is still weighted toward Tajiks, many of them former commanders of the Northern Alliance militia that battled the Taliban in the late 1990s.

More important than the numbers may be the fact that in the Afghan army, members of different ethnic groups are forced to interact with one another. Several American military officers pointed out the similarities to the United States, where the desegregation of U.S. Army units in the 1950s preceded -- and in many ways paved the way for -- the breakdown of segregation in society.

"It builds trust," Breazile said. "These guys realize once they get together in a unit and train together, they're brothers in arms. . . . That's changing the culture, to become more accepting of each other."

The change, if slight, may also be generational. A small group of young Afghan recruits interviewed together at the training camp said they felt more allegiance to the country and the army than to their ethnic group, and they blamed ethnic divisions for much of the country's strife over the previous three decades.

"The last time, every tribe just fought for itself, and that's why Afghanistan got destroyed," said Mohamed Sadiq, 21, a recruit from Wardak province. "I want the young generation to just fight the enemies of Afghanistan, and not just for the tribe."

"For the old people, that was their misunderstanding," said Walidullah, a 21-year-old Pashtun recruit, also from Wardak. "I'm glad to work with other people -- Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek. . . . Even if we have just one piece of bread, we will divide it among each other."

As a Pashtun, Walidullah said he recognizes that he will probably end up fighting fellow Pashtuns in the south. "Anyone who tries to destroy Afghanistan, I will kill him, even if he is my own brother," he said.

Capt. William E. Spurlock, a U.S. spokesman at the base, said the feeling of camaraderie among recruits is new. He said he had worked with an Afghan army company as an embedded military trainer in Zabul province in 2005 and that when he instructed the company to form two platoons, they split along ethnic lines. He didn't realize it until someone complained that the Pashtuns were "getting all the good missions," he recalled. After that, Spurlock said, he ordered that the units be integrated. He received a citation from the U.S. Army for helping foster diversity.

"The idea spread to other embedded trainers," Spurlock said. "Now everybody is mixing up."

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