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.
"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.
While the ANA appears to be on course in reaching its goal of a 70,000-man army by 2009, the army also realizes that it needs to improve the quality of its soldiers rather than merely put warm bodies out into uniform.
"Previously, there was a need to produce large numbers of soldiers, but now we focus on quality instead of quantity," says Brig. Gen. Mohammad Amin Wardak, commander of the training center in Kabul.
At first, ANA soldiers were given a brisk two-month course and then sent out to face Taliban insurgents. But now, the training at KMTC is 15 weeks long, including six weeks of basic training, and the rest in Advanced Infantry Training, where soldiers will be given specialities, from rifleman to artillery to more elite commando duty.
Upon graduation, ANA soldiers earn $70 a month, double the median monthly income nationwide. Officers earn more, depending on their rank.
Sgt. Steve Bromfield, a Canadian military trainer from the 2nd Field Engineer Regiment, is just ending a six month stint guiding the live-fire exercises at KMTC. He says the recruits he trains are eager to learn. In two weeks, he helps break some bad habits from former militia fighters like spraying gunfire instead of making every shot count. "Like everyone, if you give them bullets, they want to shoot," he laughs. "It's the same in the Canadian Army."
Up on a plateau, the first platoon of Afghan soldiers are advancing, team by team toward a target, firing their Kalashnikovs at paper targets. Down below in a dry streambed, a second platoon runs into position, and climbs up a ridge to attack the paper enemy on its flank. Behind, a reserve platoon forms a defensive circle, and prepares to respond to any enemy counterattack.
"This is the most vulnerable time for a platoon," says Sgt. Maj. Rick Dumas, a Canadian trainer, enjoying the moment. "They're getting tired, they are consolidating their forces, preparing for a counterattack."
Behind Sergeant Dumas, some overeager Afghans from the reserve platoon rush through a group of foreign trainers and journalists with their guns at the ready, before being called back by their sergeant.
While the ANA generally enjoys a good local reputation, some Afghans criticize Army leadership for packing the ranks with members of some ethnic groups, and not others.
"I don't want to call this army the Afghan National Army," said Najibullah Kabuli, a parliamentarian during an impassioned outburst in the lower house last week. "I want to call it the Army of National Rivalries. They are asking for exact numbers of Tajiks, exact numbers of Pashtuns."
ANA officials counter that ethnicity is not a criteria for selecting foot soldiers, although there is an attempt to maintain an ethnic balance among officers to reflect the country's ethnic mix.
General Raufi says ethnicity is just one of those issues that will take time to sort out in Afghanistan. "A national army should serve the people, not one ethnic group, not one person, or one province," he says. "Your army is almost 250 years old. Maybe you had those problems in your country's history too."