TOPICS: A ‘half full’ Afghan army

Sergeant 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 organised war, they just know about guerrilla warfare,” says Sgt. 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 lessons 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 (ANA) 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 ANA has just been formed, so it will take some work,” says Gen. Zaher Azimi, a Ministry of Defence spokesman. This 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 Centre, just outside Kabul, and a growing number of Afghan officers will enter military exchange programmes 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. Eighty per cent of the soldiers are illiterate. Fifty per cent of the officers are illiterate. Only 20 per cent of the soldiers have a professional knowledge of how to serve in an army; the rest are former militia fighters or young recruits. While the ANA appears to be on course in reaching its goal of a 70,000-man army by 2009, the army also realises that it needs to improve the quality of its soldiers rather than merely put warm bodies out into uniform.

While the ANA generally enjoys a good local reputation, some Afghans criticise Army leadership for packing the ranks with members of some ethnic groups, and not others. But 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. — The Christian Science Monitor