In a muddy camp east of Kabul, Maj. Gen. Sher Karimi surveys the latest hard-won gains in the struggle to forge a national defense force for Afghanistan.
Before him down the hill, a new Afghan artillery unit oils 122 mm howitzers under the patient instruction of a Mongolian trainer. Behind him stands a row of rusty Soviet Scuds and other missiles, rocket launchers, and artillery pieces trucked in Thursday night as part of a push to disarm regional militia of both small arms and heavy weapons.
Building a cohesive, ethnically diverse Afghan National Army (ANA), while gradually coaxing powerful local militia totaling some 100,000 men to lay down their arms are cornerstones of security and independence for Afghanistan. They are also vital preconditions for the withdrawal of the 16,000 US and other foreign troops here.
But General Karimi says that these remain far-off goals, complicated by competing allegiances among his soldiers and the nation's faction-ridden history. As ANA's chief of operations, he speaks of "the distant future, when Afghanistan is standing on its feet."
"We have problems, particularly the problem of attrition and desertion," says the Western-trained infantry officer, with the hint of a British accent.
Indeed, about half of the 9,000 Afghan Army recruits trained so far have quit, taking their boots and uniforms with them, he says. As a result, the ANA is rushing to enlist and meet a timetable of completing the Central Corps, with 10,000 soldiers in three brigades, before national elections planned for June. Even that number falls short of the goal of 12,500 ANA soldiers by June projected by a top US military official, Gen. Peter Pace, as recently as September.
At the current pace, Karimi estimates it will take until 2010 for the coalition to achieve its target of training 70,000 Afghan soldiers. Deserters must be tracked down and punished rather than left alone as they are now, he says.
The high attrition rate prompted Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim to order an investigation into the problem, which officers attribute to several factors ranging from pay to cultural conflicts.
"If we can't pay rent, we have to find another job," says Mohammed Tahir, a platoon sergeant from Jalalabad who is helping to support an extended family of nine. Taking a break from infantry drills, Sergeant Tahir says he plans to make a career of the Afghan army, although he wants to increase his pay of $115 a month. (This is twice a teacher's wage, but far short of NGO pay.)
Artillery squad leader Habibullah agrees. The former trader of grapes and nuts earns $70 a month and complains that his family lives in a tent. He asks a reporter for help.
Soldiers often walk long distances home to deliver their pay, delaying training, US military officials say. "It takes a while to reorganize the Army" after each pay day, says Lt. Col. Glenn Bramhall whose National Guard unit is involved with training.
Other recruits leave because they are deceived or pressed into service, says Karimi. "They were told they would get $200 and go to America, but they came and got $30 and were doing hard work." Some were not true volunteers, but were forced to join under quotas imposed by local militia commanders, he says.
Religious and ethnic tensions have also taken a toll on retention, according to officers. "Most of the people were sent through jihadi factions, and seeing [non-Muslim] coalition trainers may not be acceptable to their ideology. Also, there are no mosques for them," says Karimi.
Sergeant Tahir says when disputes arise in his multiethnic, regionally diverse platoon, he tackles them head on. "If someone disrupts the platoon, I take him aside and tell him we are like brothers. No matter if we are Tajik or Uzbek or Pashtun, we should be like one hand," he says.
Ultimately, it is the trials of military life that will bond ANA soldiers long accustomed to fighting along tribal lines. "When they live, suffer, fight, and die together ... they become buddies," says Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a former Afghan colonel.
While initially ANA patrols were largely symbolic, used mainly for training and recruiting, increasingly ANA soldiers are joining US-led coalition forces in combat operations in Afhanistan's border regions. Last month, for example, several ANA soldiers were wounded in joint operations. US forces still operate frequently with local Afghan militia, although in a few cases such militia have been accused of corruption and abuses against Afghan villagers.
Apart from manpower troubles, the Afghan Army suffers from a lack of modern equipment, Colonel Bramhall says. Most of the vehicles and weaponry are 1950s and '60s vintage Soviet gear donated from former Warsaw Pact countries, requiring Romanian and Bulgarian trainers here at the camp.
Weapons and vehicles collected from Afghan militia are also being turned over to the ANA. For example, last week Defense Minister Fahim's forces in the Panjshir Valley transferred dozens of anti-tank guns, howitzers, rockets, tanks, and surface-to-surface missiles to the ANA. Many of the weapons are obsolete and will be destroyed, however, US officers say. The NATO-led force is facilitating the cantonment of heavy weapons, jointly controlling them with the Afghan Defense Ministry.
More heavy weapons are to be turned over following this month's loya jirga in Kabul. Nevertheless, Karimi says some influential factional leaders such as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum resistbeing the first to disarm, while General Dostum's rival Atta Mohammad in Mazar-e Sharif has handed over more than 90 heavy weapons.
Militiamen are also starting to turn in small arms such as AK-47s in pilot disarmament programs in Kunduz, Gardez, and this month in Kabul. Nationwide, the disarmament will take a minimum of two years, Karimi predicts.
Despite the challenges, hope for the transformation of Afghan fighting forces lies in people like Barialiay, a private in an armored unit. A cookie baker with no prior military experience, Barialiay says he was attracted to the ANA by the "good uniforms, boots, and socks."
"I knew nothing about the military, but with our American and British trainers it's getting better day by day," he says. Although he misses his family in Logar Province, he says he'll stay in the ANA. "It's also a kind of responsibility for me for our country."