The recent fighting in Afghanistan's western province of Herat is seen by many as an effort to mar the country's first democratic presidential elections, but for President Hamid Karzai it has also provided the opportunity to flex his muscle and show how far his government has come in the last three years.
With 13,700 soldiers, the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) has become a force that Mr. Karzai has used to douse flareups between warlords who still rule a majority of the country.
Earlier this month the Afghan government rushed two ANA battalions to Herat, where a local commander of a neighboring province attacked Herat's governor, Ismail Khan. Although Mr. Khan has been known to disobey orders from the central government, sources close to the president say Karzai made a decision to defend Khan in order to show the power of his government and deter other warlord uprisings.
A cease-fire was signed last week after the ANA moved in - backed up by the threat of American warplanes above.
"The Afghan National Army is the spine of this country and of our president. The central government can defend itself now," says Faiz Mohammed, a lieutenant in the Afghan National Army.
In reality, Afghanistan is teeming with militias and Kabul has no monopoly on the use of force. Regional warlords control some 85,000 armed fighters, according to the Defense Ministry. The US military says it will not pull out its nearly 20,000 troops until the ANA becomes self- sufficient.
"We are trying to work ourselves out of a job ... but this is definitely a long term mission," says Maj. Eric Bloom, a US military spokesman. He notes that the Bonn Agreement calls for the development of an Afghan military force of 70,000. "We could see us here for another four or five years."
The ANA is barely three years old and is a creature of the US military, which has involved the force in antiterrorism and border patrol missions. This is the ANA's fifth major deployment this year. The first was in December of last year, when commanders in Mazar-e Sharif refused to comply with a disarmament campaign. Then, two battalions were dispatched to Herat in March after Ismail Khan's son was killed in a clash with a pro-government commander. Shortly after, infighting in the northwest provinces of Ghor and Badghis drew two more deployments. High ranking US military advisers are embedded into the ANA battalions when they are deployed.
Critics of the ANA say that it is inexperienced and would not be able to claim any successes on the battlefield without the help of the US military.
"A few months of training are not going to make an illiterate young Afghan boy a soldier. It takes time to build an army. The US military is the backbone of the ANA without them the ANA couldn't stand alone," says Ahmad Fahim Noori, a weapons instructor at the Afghan government's Arby Military University located outside Kabul City.
Mr. Noori does not credit the ANA with the cease-fire in Herat: "The US scared Amanullah's men, not the ANA." Khan, meanwhile, has criticized the ANA for merely getting in the way rather than destroying his rival's forces.
But Major Bloom says the ANA has come a long way and that building an army from scratch is not easy.
"The ANA are doing their own maneuvers in the field, they know their turf. We are not giving the orders," says Bloom.
Mostly trained by the US military, ANA recruits get 10 weeks of basic training followed by two months of specialty training. The ANA is taught to NATO's military standards, and one ANA battalion is graduated about every 10 weeks. The force is equipped with 50 tanks as well as heavy machine guns and mortars. A new ANA recruit makes $70 a month and a sergeant about $180.
"This kind of military management and training is very different from the Soviet-style military that they are used to. The Soviet system did not have any sergeant ranks and emphasized micromanagement," says Bloom.
Many ANA members agree.
"This new system is 180-degrees different from our old ways. We get classroom training in such topics as human rights in warfare, and also combat training in the mountains," says Mohammed, who has been in the military for 25 years.
However, Mohammed is concerned with the ANA's loose recruiting policy.
"They take former Taliban and murderers. They don't ask people's background and political ties. We even had recruits come in for training that had never heard of President Karzai," he says.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense spokesman Zaher Azimy condones this policy, "All we care about is if the recruit is between 18 and 26 years of age, physically fit, and committed to serving our country," he says.
Many senior ANA officers agree that they must let go of the past in order to move on.
"There is a transformation when a recruit puts on an ANA uniform; we see it happen in front of us. Most of them are relieved to be part of a paying and legal military," says Maj. Mohammed Osman, an ANA trainer.