Afghan Army gets ahead by getting along

The National Army, which accepted 600 more recruits Sunday, is increasingly effective, experts say.

In the past two months, Capt. Mohammad Fahim's men have learned how to march, how to rappel from tall buildings, how to fire weapons, and how to defend their country from internal and external threats.

But the most important lesson - and the greatest challenge, in this multiethnic society - may be simply learning to get along with one another.

"We can give assurance to the Afghan people and the people of the world that Afghans can make their country united," says Captain Fahim, alongside his platoon of 40 freshly-trained recruits at Pul-e Cherkhi Military Training Base. "And we in the Army are going to prove it."

Such optimism - buoyed by the graduation from basic training Sunday of 600 soldiers - is welcome in a country devastated by 23 years of war, nearly half of it fought along brutal ethnic lines.

But Afghan officials and Western diplomats agree that Afghanistan's best hope for preserving internal peace - and creating a new faith in the idea of Afghanistan - may be in its newly formed Afghan National Army. Drawing its recruits from a cross section of Afghan society - from seven major ethnic groups and a half-dozen language groups - the Afghan Army is an experiment in trust, where every soldier must believe that he is fighting for the same cause, and not just preparing for civil conflict.

With six battalions, or 3,600 men, now trained by French and US Special Forces, the Afghan National Army is already being forced to prove its mettle. The 3rd Battalion, for instance, just spent a two-month tour of duty at the dangerous forward border post of Orgun-e along the Pakistani border, undergoing antiguerrilla and antiterrorist training with American Special Forces.

But US military officials say the Afghan National Army is already causing a ripple effect in Afghan society. According to Col. Roger King, US military spokesman at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, a small Afghan military unit based in central Bamiyan Province managed to disarm a local group of fighters last week without firing a shot. What convinced the rebel fighters to surrender, Colonel King says, was not the Army's superior training but rather its blend of ethnic groups.

"One of the things about the Afghan National Army is that it's made up of a mixture of Hazaras and Tajiks and Pashtuns, and that puts a different face on it whenever we do operations," says King. "It gives us additional approaches to some of the things we do."

French military instructor Lieutenant Le Roux (who declined to give his first name), says he has seen a remarkable change in the men he has trained over the past two months.

"Two months ago, there was a lot of tension and a lot of arguments," he says. "But now, nobody talks about ethnicity. They are living together, respecting each other. For me, the National Army is a base to rebuild and reconstruct Afghan society."

Still, plenty of questions beset the Afghan Army. Can its recruits keep pace with its more numerous Al Qaeda and Taliban enemies (estimated at some 5,000) now thought to be regrouping under the leadership of Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? Does it have the training to avoid being trapped and picked apart by guerrilla attacks? Most of all, will Afghan foot soldiers stay loyal to a government that pays them $40 a month in training and $60 a month for full-time duty?

Col. Ahmad Jan, a former commander in the Northern Alliance and now a commander in the 6th Battalion of the Afghan National Army, says that his men have an advantage over their enemies hiding in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The Taliban did not have good training, they were just rushing at us with large numbers, and we could repel them because we were better soldiers," says Colonel Jan. "But now we are able to fight any terrorist attack and anything else they can throw at us."

Cpl. Mohammad Reza, an ethnic Hazara in a unit evenly divided among Farsi- and Pashto-speaking Afghans, says the mood in his unit is very good, for the time being.

"I hope it's not going to be split along ethnic lines in the future, but at the moment we make no [distinctions between] Tajiks and Pashtuns and Hazaras," says Corporal Reza. "Like everyone else here, I joined to defend my soil."

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