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A 'half full' Afghan army

With 35,000 troops, the army is midway to its final size. Training is new focus.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2006


Sgt. Mohammad Reza walks silently on a ridge, watching his platoon conduct a reconnaissance patrol in a gully below. His men are all recent recruits. Some are former militia fighters who have seen many battles but little professional training. Others are as green as the helmets on their head.

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"They don't know about organized war, they just know about guerrilla warfare," says Sergeant Reza, himself a former militiaman from Bamian Province.

Increasingly, coalition forces are turning over some of the training to Afghan sergeants like Reza. Fresh recruits learn the basics of how to take protective measures and launch counterattacks, skills that will help them hold their positions in a fight.

How well they absorb these lesson will be crucial for Afghanistan's ability to stand on its own two feet. Now half-way toward the goal of a 70,000-man force, the Afghan National Army is reaching a crucial testing period: The US military is preparing to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, NATO forces are moving in, and security conditions along the southern border with Pakistan are worsening.

"Those who are in the military know how difficult it is to make an army self-sufficient, and the Afghan National Army has just been formed, so it will take some work," says Gen. Zaher Azimi, a Ministry of Defense spokesman. "If we are fighting alongside foreign forces, we have the capability to fight against guerrillas, but we can't do it alone."

That means that the international presence in Afghanistan will remain crucial for the foreseeable future. The growing number of ANA brigades in the volatile south will soon by joined by NATO forces who are rotating in to take over the responsibility for Afghanistan's security after the US military draws down 3,000 of its troops this spring.

US, French, British, Rumanian, and even Mongolian trainers will continue to train ANA troops at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), just outside Kabul, and a growing number of Afghan officers will enter military exchange programs at military bases in the US and other coalition countries.

Yet four years after the Taliban's ouster, there are growing expectations that the ANA will pick up more of the slack in defending the country and providing the sort of security that allows Afghans to trust in their own government and their future.

"The fortunate thing about Afghans is that they have a feeling that our army is able to defend the country at a high level of proficiency," says Gen. Rahmatullah Raufi, the corps commander in Kandahar. "But when we talk of defending our country on our own, I confess, we can't do it ourselves. We are a poor country."

Eighty percent of the soldiers in his corps are illiterate, General Raufi says. Fifty percent of the officers are illiterate. Only 20 percent of his soldiers have a professional knowledge of how to serve in an army; the rest are former militia fighters or young recruits. "No one will tell you this, but even if the president sahib asks me, I will tell him this myself.