An Afghan officer, NATO behind him, leads an assault
In Afghanistan's troubled south, one mission shows how far the Afghan Army has come –and what remains to be done.
ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan
It is just after dawn when the Afghan soldiers creep into lush fields splashed with morning light. Their job is to turn back an insurgency whose members lurk among the grapevines, almond trees, and red-flowered poppy fields that border their military compound. Today, that means stopping a stream of attacks that has disrupted supply routes here in Kandahar Province, in the troubled southern reaches of Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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As the men move through the vegetation, only a rooster's crowing breaks the enduring silence, suggesting that the mission may prove a bust. But then gunfire shatters an otherwise pristine morning – and Lt. Col. Sheren Shah, the Afghan commander, grabs the phone strapped to his radio operator and starts barking orders in Pashto.
In the tug of war between the increasingly robust Afghan Army and a potent – if much smaller – enemy, Colonel Shah is the kind of commander that his Canadian advisers like. Shah has earned a reputation for moving quickly, sometimes spearheading a mission just after receiving last-minute intelligence. In response, the Canadians have given him considerable latitude, deferring to him as commander even as they provide essential support.
On this day, after a brief lull in the gunfire, Shah directs his men to send a barrage of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades that fills the morning air as they move toward what they believe is an insurgent safe house.
As they observe Shah's operation, the dozen or so Canadians advising this mission say the Army has come far in the past five years. But while wars in Afghanistan have imbued at least two generations of Afghans with a warrior spirit and strong sense of nationalism, the soldiers still lack key discipline and organizational skills. And, as the summer season approaches, opening the door to more aggressive fighting, the Afghans are fighting as a modern army trying to fight an opponent schooled in very different ways.
"The [Afghan National Army] has potential to face the challenges of face-to-face war if the spring offensive happens to have the form of conventional war," says Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, a cofounder of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. "The problem of the war against the Taliban is that [conventional warfare] is not their fighting strategy. Each time they take over a district, the ANA and other forces can easily take them out in a few days."
Trouble begins, he adds, "when they retreat and attack in the form of guerrilla fighters. Then it becomes hard to find a fish in the sea of people."
But with disagreement persisting over NATO force levels and longer-term commitments, the Canadians here in Kandahar are under pressure to "stand up" an effective Afghan force that can ultimately step into Western forces' shoes.
The south: longstanding hot spot
As the home of the Taliban and its one-time guest Osama bin Laden, southern Afghanistan has long posed a major challenge to Afghan and NATO coalition forces. Routed in 2001 by US forces, the Taliban and other insurgents have made a comeback: Roadside bombs and suicide bombers are on the rise. Sunday's attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul also serves to remind the Afghan Army of a determined enemy.
Training and Equipping Budget
2005: $786 million
2006: $735 million
2007: $4.8 billion
Infrastructure: $621 million
Training: $484.8 million
Equipment: $3.1 billion
Trained troops: about 55,000
Salary: $145 (private) to $780 (three-star general) per month
Equipment: 4,000 Humvees to be delivered this summer to bolster current 16. About 630 armored ambulances are also to arrive this summer.
Source: Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan The Afghan Army